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Judicial power and authority.

This chapter contains the important decisions that have enabled the Supreme Court to establish itself as an authoritative policy-making body. The most important of these decisions articulated the doctrine of judicial review, which holds that the courts in general and the Supreme Court in particular determine the constitutionality of the actions of the other branches of government.

The Constitution's Framers also divided the powers delegated to the federal government among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. The Framers further intended Congress and the president to be at odds with one another. When such conflicts cannot be resolved through the normal political process, the Supreme Court, relying on the principle of separation of powers, may be called upon to resolve them.

The Framers of the Constitution also provided for the supremacy of federal law when it conflicts with that of the states. Relying on its position as the authoritative interpreter of the fundamental law-the Constitution-the Court also resolves these matters, thereby determining the degree of centralization or decentralization that will prevail at any given point in time.

The last sections of this chapter specify the jurisdiction of the federal courts, their organization, and the relationship that governs the state and federal court systems.


Marbury v. Madison (1803)

This decision was the Court's first elaboration of the principle of judicial review. William Marbury had been appointed justice of the peace for the District of Columbia by President John Adams and confirmed by the Senate in 1801 shortly before the incoming administration of Thomas Jefferson took office. At the time, Adams's newly appointed chief justice, John Marshall, was also serving as secretary of state. As secretary of state, Marshall was to deliver to Marbury the commission that would authorize him to begin his job as justice of the peace. For unknown reasons, Marshall failed to give Marbury his commission before he-Marshall-turned over his duties as secretary of state to his successor, James Madison.

When Marbury requested Madison to give him his commission, Madison refused. Marbury thereupon applied directly to the Supreme Court, as provided by the Judiciary Act of 1789, for an order-a writ of mandamus-that would compel Madison to deliver the commission. Marshall, as chief justice, declared that Article III, section 2 of the Constitution allowed the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus only under its appellate jurisdiction. Hence the provision of the Judiciary Act authorizing the writ of mandamus in an original proceeding, on which Marbury had relied, was invalid. The Constitution, said Marshall, is the fundamental law of the land; in cases of conflict between it and a statute, "an Act of the Legislature repugnant to the Constitution is void." Moreover, "It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is."

Judicial review is exercised not only by the Supreme Court but also by the lower federal courts and the state courts. Actions of the executive branches of government as well as those of Congress and the state legislatures are subject to judicial review.

Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816)

The Virginia Supreme Court alleged that the appellate jurisdiction of the United States Supreme Court did not extend to decisions of state courts and that a provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 so extending it was unconstitutional. Virginia argued that like all the other states it was bound by the supremacy clause (Article VI, section 2) and, furthermore, that its judges were as competent as those sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether a conflict existed between state and federal law. Marshall and his colleagues disagreed, holding that the Constitution "was ordained and established, not by the States in their sovereign capacities, but emphatically, as the preamble of the Constitution declares, by the people of the United States"; that the Constitution "is crowded with provisions which restrain or annul the sovereignty of the States in some of the highest branches of their prerogatives" (see Article I, section 10); that exercise of federal judicial power over the judgments of state courts is not more dangerous than over state legislatures and executives; and that, in order to avoid differences among state courts in the interpretation of the Constitution and federal laws and treaties, it is necessary that there should be a reviewing authority to control and harmonize the "jarring and discordant judgments" that might be handed down by "judges of equal learning and integrity" in the different states.

This decision thus provides the basis for a uniform interpretation of federal law. Without it, the supreme court of each state would determine for itself the meaning of the Constitution, acts of Congress, and U.S. treaties. What constitutes due process of law, interstate commerce, the meaning of the First Amendment, and so on, would vary from state to state.

United States v. Nixon (1974)

In a unanimous decision by the eight justices participating, the Court held that President Nixon must deliver to a U.S. district judge certain tapes of White House conversations subpoenaed for use in the criminal trials of former Nixon aides. Rejecting Nixon's contention, based on the doctrine of separation of powers, that he, as head of a coordinate branch of government, was not obliged to surrender the tapes, the Court reiterated the declaration in Marbury v. Madison (see above) that "it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is." The Court further stated that conversations between the president, his advisers, and others had no undifferentiated general immunity from judicial process; that the district judge, after listening to the tapes in private, could determine which portions, if any, contained sensitive military, diplomatic, or national security information, which need not be released. The importance of preserving confidentiality in White House conversations "must be balanced against the demonstrated need for evidence in a pending criminal trial."


United States v. Peters (1809)

A state legislature may not, by declaring that the decision of a lower federal court violated the Eleventh Amendment, impede the execution of the laws of the United States.

Ableman v. Booth (1859)

A Wisconsin court could not effect the release of a prisoner who was in the custody of a U.S. marshal for having violated federal law by helping a fugitive slave to escape. When a person is legally in federal custody for a federal offense and this fact has been communicated to state authorities, the state may not interfere.

Pennsylvania v. Nelson (1956)

This decision reversed a conviction under a state sedition law on the grounds that (1) Congress, in passing the Smith Act and other internal security legislation, intended to occupy the field of antisedition legislation to an extent that left no room for supplementary state legislation; (2) the federal interest in internal security is dominant and pervasive; and (3) a state program might impermissibly conflict with federal objectives.


Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952)

The Court refused to uphold President Truman's seizure of steel mills in order to avert a strike that, he said, might hamper the Korean War effort by sharply reducing the supply of munitions. By a 6-to-3 vote and with seven separate opinions, the Court held that although Congress had considered granting the president power to seize strike-bound plants, it voted against doing so when it passed the Taft-Hartley Act. Nor could the Court find such authority in the clauses of Article II of the Constitution, which vest the president with executive power, make him commander in chief, and impose on him the duty to enforce federal law.

Train v. New York City (1975)

The president, as chief executive, has no power to countermand congressional authorization of funds for controlling and abating water pollution. Instead, the president must expend the full amounts authorized by Congress.

Nixon v. Administrator of General Services (1977)

See under The Presidency.

Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha (1983)

Legislation authorizing one house or committee of Congress to "veto" or annul action of the executive branch or an administrative agency, which action was authorized by duly enacted legislation, violates the procedures of Article I, section 7 of the Constitution. This article requires that both houses of Congress pass a bill and present it to the president before it may take effect.

Bowsher v. Synar (1986)

The Court held unconstitutional a key provision of the Gramm-Rudman Deficit Reduction Act of 1985. The disallowed provision triggered automatic, across-the-board spending cuts aimed at eliminating the federal budget deficit by 1991. By vesting the comptroller general with the executive power of estimating the size of the deficit and mandating annually the spending reductions necessary to meet the deficit reduction target, Congress violated the doctrine of separation of powers. The reason: the comptroller general is an agent of Congress whom it may remove from office. As such, he may not exercise executive power. Justice White, in dissent, criticized the majority's decision, observing that the comptroller is "one of the most independent officers in the entire federal establishment."


Chisholm v. Georgia (1793)

Supreme Court jurisdiction over controversies "between a State and citizens of another State" included the power to hear and decide a case brought by Chisholm, a citizen of South Carolina, against the state of Georgia to obtain compensation for property taken during the Revolutionary War. This decision alarmed the states that had outstanding debts and led directly to the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment.

Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816)

See under Judicial Review.

Cohens v. Virginia (1821)

Though state courts may exercise final authority in cases that fall entirely within their jurisdiction, they are subject to the appellate jurisdiction of federal courts if their judgments involve the construction of federal laws or treaties or the Constitution. The Court also held that a federal court's review of a state court judgment against a defendant does not constitute a suit against a state (prohibited by the Eleventh Amendment) because the state itself initiated the lawsuit.

Ex parte McCardle (1869)

Congress may make exceptions to the Court's appellate jurisdiction even after hearings on a case have been concluded. McCardle had been tried for sedition by a military commission in Mississippi under authority provided by an act of Congress. He appealed to the Supreme Court. Some members of Congress feared that the Court would follow its precedent in Ex parte Milligan (see under The President as Commander in Chief) and void the act. Congress thereupon repealed the legislation giving the Supreme Court jurisdiction to hear McCardle's case on appeal. Said Chief Justice Chase: "Without jurisdiction the court cannot proceed at all in any cause. Jurisdiction is power to declare the law, and when it ceases to exist, the only function remaining to the court is that of announcing the fact and dismissing the cause."

Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis R. Co. v. Wallace (1933)

The Court accepted jurisdiction to hear an appeal from a state court's "declaratory judgment," which was then a recent innovation. The Court said that the Constitution does not "crystallize into changeless form" the procedures that governed the access of litigants to the federal courts as they existed in 1789 and, "so long as the case retains the essentials of an adversary proceeding, involving a real, not a hypothetical controversy, which is finally determined by the judgment below," it is a "controversy" as this word is used in conferring jurisdiction on the federal courts in Article III.

Pennhurst State School & Hospital v. Halderman (1984)

Federal courts lack jurisdiction under the Eleventh Amendment to hear a suit against state and local officials because conditions in a state mental hospital violate state law.


Swift v. Tyson (1842)

In adjudicating cases (as authorized by Article III, section 2) between residents of different states that contain no federal question, federal courts must apply relevant state statutes but need not follow state court decisions based on the common law. Where no state statute exists, federal courts are free to develop their own common law. Overruled by Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins (see below).

Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins (1938)

Tompkins, a resident of Pennsylvania, was injured while walking along the right-of-way of the Erie Railroad, a New York corporation. Under the common law of Pennsylvania, where the accident occurred, Tompkins was a trespasser and not entitled to damages. The lower federal court, however, applied its own rule and held the railroad negligent and liable for damages. The Supreme Court overruled Swift v. Tyson (see above) for several reasons: the decision allowed plaintiffs to select the court where the law was most favorable to them; state and federal courts located in the same state might decide the same case differently; and in matters not governed by the Constitution or acts of Congress, "the law to be applied in any case is the law of the State. And whether the law of the State shall be declared by the legislature in a statute or by its highest court in a decision is not a matter of federal concern. There is no federal general common law."


Ex parte Bakelite Corporation (1929)

The Court differentiated the constitutional courts created under Article III-the federal district courts and the circuit courts of appeal-from the so-called legislative courts that have specialized jurisdiction limiting them to adjudicate claims of persons suing the United States for damages, to settle disputes over customs duties and patents, and to administer justice in U.S. territories created by Congress under Articles I and IV of the Constitution. In creating legislative courts, Congress is not bound by the limitations of Article III concerning the tenure and compensation of federal judges.

Glidden Co. v. Zdanok (1962)

After an act of Congress had provided that the Court of Claims and the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals should become constitutional courts under Article III, the Supreme Court ruled that judges of these specialized courts may not be assigned to sit on district or circuit courts, the regular constitutional courts, because they lack life tenure.

Northern Pipeline Construction Co. v. Marathon Pipe Line Co. (1982)

The federal bankruptcy courts may not constitutionally exercise all the power Congress provided them. Judges who exercise Article III jurisdiction, as bankruptcy judges did under the act of Congress, must also be provided the salary and tenure protections of Article III, which bankruptcy judges do not have.


Railroad Commission v. Pullman Co. (1941)

The Court formulated the "abstention doctrine" to minimize conflict between state and federal courts. Applications of this doctrine have produced a system of "comity" by which the federal courts substantially avoid intruding themselves into ongoing state judicial proceedings. Comity accomplishes this by requiring litigants to exhaust their state's remedies, administrative as well as judicial, before gaining access to the federal courts. The policy gives the state courts the first opportunity to determine the constitutionality of their own laws. If the state court acts compatibly with the supremacy clause of Article VI, section 2 and gives force and effect to the federal law, there may be no need for federal court intervention.

Younger v. Harris (1971)

The defendant sought to avoid prosecution for violation of a state law that he contended was unconstitutional. The Court said that a federal court may enjoin a state criminal prosecution only where there is "great and immediate" danger "of irreparable loss" of federal rights. No such danger existed here.

Michigan v. Long (1983)

The Court used this case, an otherwise run-of-the-mill vehicular search-and-seizure suit, to overrule its traditional presumption regarding the "reviewability" of state court decisions. In cases where federal questions are bound up with issues of state law-which is true of most state criminal and civil rights litigation-the Supreme Court had declined review as long as the state court decision rested "on an adequate and independent state ground." In other words, if the state court would be able to adhere to its original decision notwithstanding a Supreme Court ruling on the federal aspects of the case, the Supreme Court would refuse to hear the matter. Now, if it is unclear whether the state court based its decision on state or on federal law, the Supreme Court will presume that it rests on federal law and, as such, consider the case reviewable. The effect of this holding, authored by Justice O'Connor, vastly broadens the Supreme Court's authority to review state court decisions. If it is adhered to and utilized regularly, the autonomy of the state courts will be undermined and seriously compromised.

Although the Supreme Court is ultimately responsible for interpreting the Constitution's other provisions, its use of judicial review, separation of powers, and national supremacy may be viewed as the foundation from which its policy-making capacity flows. The Court, however, does not have unbounded discretion with regard to these matters. It resolves disputes and makes policy only if a case falls within the jurisdiction of the federal courts and if its review comports with the rules it has formulated to review the decisions of state courts.
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Author:Spaeth, Harold J.; Smith, Edward Conrad
Publication:Constitution of the United States
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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