Guest Essayist: Robert Lowry Clinton, Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Southern Illinois University Carbondale
In Federalist 82, Alexander Hamilton continues his defense of the federal judicial arrangements proposed in the Constitution, focusing here upon the relation between the national and state judicial systems. In brief, Hamilton argues that the jurisdiction of the national and state courts is concurrent with respect to any issue not strictly forbidden to the states by the Constitution or laws. To understand the doctrine of concurrent jurisdiction, a brief look at the power structure elaborated in the Constitution will be helpful.
The Constitution establishes three main branches of government. In Article I, Section 8, specific lawmaking powers are assigned to Congress. In Article II, Sections 2 and 3, executive powers are assigned to the President. Judicial power is assigned to the Supreme Court (and lower federal courts that Congress chooses to establish) in Article III, Section 2. The judicial power is precisely stated to be the power to decide cases and controversies arising under the Constitution, laws and treaties of the United States.
After establishing and assigning powers to the national government, the Constitution then places some limits on how national power can be exercised. This is done first in Article I, Section 9, where the government is denied the power to pass ex post facto laws or bills of attainder, for example. Article I, Section 10 places a similar set of limitations on the state governments. After the Constitution was adopted, the First Congress proposed twelve amendments, ten of which were adopted. These amendments, now referred to as the Bill of Rights, were designed to impose additional limits on the national government.
The final article in the Bill of Rights is the Tenth Amendment. This provision is declaratory, meaning that it simply states what was already implicit in the Constitution. It reserves to the states all powers not assigned to the nation (e.g., in Articles I, II, or III) or denied to the states (e.g., in Article I, Section 10). Some powers granted to the nation are obviously allowed to the states as well (e.g., taxation, general law enforcement, and application of law by courts). These are called “concurrent” powers.
Hamilton’s argument in Federalist 82 is simply that one of the concurrent powers shared by both the state and national judiciaries is the power to apply federal law in cases properly arising in the courts. This means that state courts are empowered to decide federal questions (whether constitutional or statutory) in the first instance, subject to appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court or to inferior federal courts that Congress chooses to establish. This reading of the Constitution is necessitated by the fact that the Constitution itself established no inferior federal courts at all and severely restricted the Supreme Court’s trial jurisdiction to a narrow range of cases.
This reading of the Constitution is also necessitated by the very nature of judicial power. According to Hamilton, “The judiciary power of every government looks beyond its own local or municipal laws, and in civil cases lays hold of all subjects of litigation between parties within its jurisdiction, though the causes of dispute are relative to the laws of the most distant part of the globe. Those of Japan, not less than of New York, may furnish the objects of legal discussion to our courts. When in addition to this we consider the State governments and the national governments, as they truly are, in the light of kindred systems, and as parts of ONE WHOLE, the inference seems to be conclusive that the State courts would have a concurrent jurisdiction in all cases arising under the laws of the Union where it was not expressly prohibited.”
When concurrent powers exercised by both the state and national governments conflict, Article VI of the Constitution grants supremacy to the nation, stating that “This Constitution, the Laws Pursuant to it, and federal Treaties are the Supreme Law of the Land, anything in the constitution or laws of a state to the contrary notwithstanding.” Thus state judges are instructed to invalidate conflicting state laws. If they fail to do this, Article III, Section 2, which extends national judicial power to all cases arising under the Constitution, empowers the federal courts to overrule the state courts.
In the Judiciary Act of 1789, Section 25, the First Congress enacted Hamilton’s understanding of concurrent jurisdiction explicitly, authorizing the United States Supreme Court to reverse or affirm any judgment of a state’s highest court in which a national law is invalidated or in which a state law is upheld against a federal constitutional challenge. In other words, if a state court invalidates a national law, then the Supreme Court is authorized to reverse or affirm that state court decision. This means that the concurrent jurisdiction of the state and national courts extends even to federal constitutional issues.
The bottom line in Hamilton’s argument about concurrent jurisdiction is that there is no strict separation of national and state judicial authority under the Constitution. The Founders envisioned a more flexible arrangement that allows courts to draw upon all legitimate legal authorities and sources in order to resolve disputes peacefully. That is the essence of the judicial function.
Wednesday, August 18th, 2010
Robert Lowry Clinton is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.