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Landmark Legislation: U.S. Constitution, Article III

Landmark Legislation

During the early days of the Federal Convention in 1787, the delegates agreed that their plan for a new government would include a national judiciary. Article III of the Constitution drafted that summer established a Supreme Court and left for the Congress to determine whether other federal courts would be part of the new nation's judiciary. The provision for tenure during good behavior and a prohibition on reductions in salary assured the judges of the Supreme Court and other judges authorized to exercise the judicial power of the United States an independence that the Constitution denied the legislators and president. The constitutional outline of the judiciary, far briefer than the articles defining the legislative and executive branches, offered a general description of the federal courts' jurisdiction. Article III was more specific in its protection of several rights and liberties, such as the guarantee of trial by jury in criminal cases and freedom from bills of attainder or vague charges of treason.

Other articles of the Constitution also shaped the structure and operation of the federal judiciary. According to Article II, the president would appoint judges with the approval of the Senate. In Article I, the enumerated powers of the Congress included the authority "to constitute Tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court." Although Article III made no mention of a chief justice, the provision in Article I for the chief justice to preside in the impeachment trial of a president indicated the delegates' assumption that the Supreme Court would include one leadership position. Article VI required all judges, like state and federal legislators and executives, to be bound by oath to support the Constitution.

The constitutional provisions for the judiciary reflected the conventions' debate on the appointment of judges, the institutional independence of the third branch, and the value of lower federal courts. Many delegates assumed Congress would elect judges, while other wanted the president alone to select the members of the Supreme Court. Madison's original proposal for the Constitution called for the president and members of the Supreme Court to serve on a Council of Revision that would have authority to veto legislation. The most contentious, and finally unresolved, debate concerning the judiciary centered on the proposals for lower federal courts that would operate alongside existing state courts. Supporters of a strong national government wanted a system of lower federal courts with final jurisdiction in many cases, while those who wished to preserve the authority of state governments proposed that the state courts exercise federal jurisdiction on a local level. The debates on the ratification of the Constitution further demonstrated how controversial were the proposals for lower courts and made clear the challenge Congress would face in establishing a national judiciary within a federal system.

Section. 1. The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.

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.

In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.

The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.

Section. 3. Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.