Sunday, April 24, 2016

Constitution Series Part 21: Article III, Section 2, Clause 1

The first three articles share a natural pattern: first, they establish a branch of the government. Then, they organize the powers and limitations of that branch, detailing their unique functions and how they interact with the other branches.

Today, we start digging into the powers of the judicial branch, digging deep into the workings of a branch of our government one last time. It's fairly dense, so this process may take a few posts.


Section 2
The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;—to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States;— between a State and Citizens of another State,—between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.
Here we have a list of the cases in which a federal court is required for a ruling. The primary distinction here is that these are cases in which the federal courts have jurisdiction and state courts do not. Opponents to a federal court system preferred to keep all cases within the jurisdiction of state courts, but it seems obvious to me, at least, that a federal court system is necessary to handle... exactly the sorts of things mentioned in this section. Though, as we'll see, even opponents to the Constitution often accepted the necessity of some of these measures.

Let's go through the list of things federal courts handle one piece at a time:

1) All cases involving the Constitution, federal laws, and federal treaties.

Obviously, state courts can not be expected to enforce national laws. If anything, having a federal court system to handle those cases frees the state courts to handle state matters.

Moreover, though, federal laws need to be interpreted more or less uniformly across the country, and state courts, being held accountable by their own state and not by a country-wide system, might be inclined to interpret laws in such a way that benefits the state. This is especially the case since states don't have a uniform method for determining judges: some appoint, but many elect their judges, which means some judges make decisions that appeal to their electorate rather than being impartial.

In addition to having jurisdiction over constitutional and federal issues, the federal courts also have jurisdiction over any case involving treaties. This fits in with the previously established jurisdiction the federal government has over all foreign relations.

2) All cases involving foreign ambassadors and public ministers. (Consuls are not actually protected by this, since the meaning of the word has changed over time.)

Again, this fits with the federal government's general jurisdiction over international relations. Interestingly, even ardent anti-Federalists acknowledged the importance of having foreign cases fall under the jurisdiction of a federal court. It was seen as necessary to maintain national peace.

There are some exceptions to this rule, though. First, cases involving U.S. Ambassadors don't require a federal court if the case doesn't involve federal law; it only applies to foreign ambassadors. Second, federal courts don't need to get involved in a foreign ambassador's divorce case. Finally, this does not apply to people who were ambassadors but who no longer hold that title.

That said, ambassadors are rarely prosecuted for breaking the law in the United States if they don't want to be, as they're generally protected by diplomatic immunity. So, this provision typically only comes up if the ambassador is the plaintiff.

3) All cases of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction.

In short, if the case arose on the water, it's the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Whether on the high seas or an inland lake, admiralty laws state that it's a federal issue. This was yet another issue that even Anti-Federalists agreed to be necessary, since determining state jurisdiction on the water is tricky at best.

4) Controversies to which the United States shall be a party.

Basically, if the government itself is one of the parties involved, as either the plaintiff or the defendant, it's federal jurisdiction, for obvious reasons.

However, though the United States does sometimes sue people, it's not always easy to sue the United States. The United States is a sovereign entity. Basically, you know how a corporation is considered a person by law for many purposes, including the ability for it to sue and be sued? The United States is basically a massive corporation in that sense, except it's not treated like just any person; it's treated as a king. By virtue of its sovereignty, the United States as an entity can simply choose not to be sued. It can excuse itself from litigation.

That said, many departments of the government were specifically created with provisions that allow them to both sue and be sued. Effectively, the government has waived its sovereign immunity in certain instances. Also, Congress can (and has) waived the country's sovereign immunity in specific cases. Incredibly, the United States has generally subjected itself to its own laws and allowed itself to be sued when it breaks those laws, even though it doesn't have to. That's the benefit of a government run by people whose primary purpose is representing their citizens.

5) Controversies between two states.

Obviously, if two states find themselves in a disagreement, the dispute can not be settled in one state or the other. The Articles of Confederation had a system for solving interstate disputes, but it was convoluted and ineffective. So, the Constitutional Convention simply left it to the federal courts to hear and arbitrate between the states. Again, even Anti-Federalists understood the importance of this provision.

Interstate disputes still occur today, by the way. In 1998, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that Ellis Island was mostly within the borders of New Jersey, not New York, despite its general association with the Empire State. As such, the land on the island has been divided between the two states, with the larger portion going to New Jersey.

6) Cases between a state and citizens of another state.

This was a hotly debated provision, as Anti-Federalists were offended at the notion that people could sue states, suggesting that states do not have sovereign immunity. Federalists argued that, no, this provision only allows states to sue people, not the other way around, and that states' sovereign immunity was understood.

However, in 1793, just a few years after the courts were established, a case arose in which a citizen sued a state (Chisholm v. Georgia), and the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution clearly suggests that states could be sued. The country at large was appalled.

Not coincidentally, the 11th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1795, two years after the Chisholm ruling.

7) Cases between citizens of different states.

Again, a state court was not expected to remain impartial in a case between a citizen of their own state versus a citizen of another. Recall that some states elect their judges, meaning that ruling against their own citizen over someone from out of state might mean losing the votes of that citizen as well as the votes of all of that citizen's supporters, friends, and family.

That said, the extent of this provision is determined by Congress, which has limited the cases that this would apply to. Basically, if the value of the litigation doesn't reach a certain threshold, the case is decided in state courts.

8) Cases between citizens of the same state claiming land grants of different states.

This provision was more of an issue around the time the country was expanding west, clearing and taking whatever land they could claim. Disputes arising from these land grants were settled in federal courts, but nowadays these sorts of disputes simply don't come up. There simply isn't any unclaimed land to grant.

9) Cases between states or it citizens against a foreign state or its citizens.

Again, any foreign disputes are handled by the federal courts. Likewise here, though, states seem to be losing their sovereign immunity, which is something that was fixed in the 11th Amendment.


Those are the jurisdictions of federal courts in general. These cases may be taken up to the Supreme Court, but most of them do not. Over 99% of all federal cases are handled by the lower courts.

Continue to Part 22: Article III, Section 2, Clauses 2 and 3

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