Article I, Section 8, Clause 9
9: To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;
There is much more to these seemingly simple words than meets the eye. Indeed, one cannot write meaningfully about them without first advancing to Article III, Section 1 of the Constitution: 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.
It is not my intent to deal with Article III, Section 1 more than is minimally necessary for making sense of Article I, Section 8, Clause 9. I ask the reader’s indulgence to this end.
It is noteworthy that Article III, Section 1 of the Constitution establishes one federal Supreme Court only for the entire United States, and that it separates the powers of this court from those of Congress and the executive. By establishing just one Supreme Court, the Founders provided for a uniformity of interpretation of the federal laws that otherwise might not have been forthcoming. By establishing the Supreme Court as separate from the Congress the Founders benefited from the genius of James Madison who built in checks and balances as a response to the Connecticut Compromise that provided equal representation to all the States in the Senate of the United States. Prior to that Compromise, Madison’s Virginia Plan had advocated subservience of the Supreme Court to the Congress.
Note, however, that the Constitution does not itself create judicial bodies other than the Supreme Court. The Congress alone – not the Supreme Court not the Executive – is empowered, should it so choose, to take responsibility for such matters. Exactly how it should do so and in what form would be subjected to close scrutiny of the precise meaning of the wording of the Constitution.
In one – and in my judgment convincing – interpretation, the power given to Congress in Article I, Section 8, Clause 9 ‘To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme court’ plainly relates to the power given to Congress in Article III, Section 1 to ordain and establish inferior Courts. If such is the case, then Article I empowers Congress to establish inferior judicial bodies (tribunals and courts being viewed as synonyms). And Article III reaches out to the tenure conditions attached to all such judges.
Since, in practice, Article I tribunals have not been viewed as identical to Article III courts, however, a careful parsing of the relevant words becomes essential, even if only to explain unjustifiable error.
As always, in parsing the words of the Constitution, it is important to rely upon the meaning of words in 1787, not those of the early twenty-first century. To this end, I shall rely on the written records of the Founding Fathers and of the major dictionaries of that era, such as those of Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster.
The term ‘tribunal’, to be sure, carries a distinctive historical connotation, derived from the Roman tribunate, a raised platform on which the seats of magistrates were placed. The term ‘court’, by contrast, derives from the judiciary’s close association in England and France with the king. However, by Blackstone’s day, the terms were viewed as synonyms in all the major dictionaries. Throughout the early deliberations of the Philadelphia Convention, the Founding Fathers also used the two terms interchangeably, as does Hamilton in Federalist No. 81. Of course, such evidence does not guarantee that the Constitution itself deploys the term ‘tribunal’ under Article I as a synonym for the term ‘court’ under Article III.
There is some support from the drafting history for the view that the Constitution distinguishes between the two concepts. The distinction may have grown out of the mid-convention debates over the possibility of employing some non-life-tenured judges to adjudicate federal claims. Specifically, Congress might appoint state tribunals to act as courts of first instance in deciding questions of federal law. Madison’s notes from the debates offer support for such a change in emphasis once the New Jersey Plan and the Virginia Plan were jettisoned following the Connecticut Compromise. For the Compromise eliminated an early provision that mandated the creation of lower federal courts and substituted a regime of congressional discretion (as confirmed by Articles I and III). At this point, the Committee of Detail dropped the usage of the term ‘tribunals’ to describe the federal courts in Article III, and it required life-tenured judges in Article III courts, while refusing to impose any such requirement for Article 1 tribunals.
Further support for distinguishing between Article I tribunals and Article III courts may be discerned in the empowerment provisions themselves. Article I empowers Congress to ‘constitute tribunals interior to the supreme court’, whereas Article III empowers Congress to ordain and establish courts. This difference in description of congressional powers is suggestive that the two adjudicative bodies might arise in different ways and with different degrees of permanence. Specifically, Congress might ‘constitute’ tribunals either by creating new bodies from scratch, or by designating existing bodies as inferior tribunals. To ‘ordain and establish’ inferior courts, by contrast, seems to contemplate the creation of new courts established in accordance with Article III. Such a fine distinction is in accordance with the major dictionaries of the late eighteenth century.
In any event, Congress has exploited such parsing opportunities in order to distinguish clearly between Article I tribunals and Article III courts (A fairly good guide to congressional behavior in general is that if you give it an inch it will take a kilometer). From the outset, Congress has established some (but not all) Article I tribunals without the Article III safeguards of life-tenure and remuneration. These tribunals consist of certain federal courts and other forms of adjudicative bodies, endowed with differing levels of independence from the legislative and executive branches. Some take the form of legislative courts set up by Congress to review agency decisions; others take the form of military courts-martial appeal courts, ancillary courts with judges appointed by Article III and administrative judges.
As one would predict, Congress (and the Executive) does not always relish the idea that Article I tribunals should be inferior to the Supreme Court. Yet that is an inescapable reading of the Constitution. The specification that tribunals and lower courts must remain inferior cements the requirement of the Supreme Court’s ultimate supremacy. The requirement of inferiority precludes Congress (and by clear implication, the executive branch) from creating free-standing courts, investing them with some portion of judicial power, and giving them freedom from oversight and control of the Supreme Court. In this regard, the Founders were only too mindful of such abuses of executive power by the Stuart kings in England’s not-so-far-distant past.
This portrait of Article I tribunals as acting outside of the judicial power, while remaining subject to oversight and control by Article III courts is reflected in modern jurisprudence. However much it would like to do so, Congress (and the Executive) cannot create tribunals and place them entirely beyond the supervisory authority of the federal courts.
The most pressing recent variant of this logic effectively deals with the decision by President George W. Bush to create military tribunals for the adjudication of criminal claims against individuals designated as enemy combatants. Although the government has argued for an exceedingly restricted judicial role in overseeing such tribunals, the Constitution clearly requires that they must remain inferior to the Supreme Court and subject to judicial review, at least when such tribunals operate within the jurisdiction of the United States.
Americans should be eternally thankful to the Founders for providing us with such protections, both under Article I and under Article III of the Constitution. Unless the parchment unravels completely, there will be no Court of the Star Chamber, no Court of High Commission, and no Bloody Assize in the Unites States of America.
Charles K. Rowley, Ph.D. is Duncan Black Professor of Economics at George Mason University and General Director of The Locke Institute in Fairfax, Virginia. He is author of Liberty and the State (The Locke Institute 1993), co-author (with Nathanael Smith) of Economic Contractions in the United States: A Failure of Government (The Locke Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs 2009), and the author of Never Let A Good Crisis Go To Waste (The Locke Institute 2010). For further details see www.thelockeinstitute.org and www.charlesrowley.wordpress.com