Article III, 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.
Building on the political theory of John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu, the Founders established an independent judiciary, more specifically, a Supreme Court. While the Constitution only establishes a Supreme Court, it was not long after the ratification of the Constitution that the first Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789 which established the U.S. Federal Judiciary. The act created a Supreme Court in which there were five associate justices and one chief justice. The first chief justice was John Jay—one of the three authors of the Federalist Papers.
The act also established circuit courts and district courts. The district courts had original jurisdiction while the circuit courts had appellate jurisdiction. The first Supreme Court justices had to ‘ride circuit’, meaning they served on the Supreme Court and the circuit courts. This practice ended with the passage of the Judiciary Act of 1891.
The number of judges, justices, and courts has varied over the years—usually expanded at a time of one party dominance when the party in power looks to increase its influence within the judiciary by expanding the number of available slots to which they can appoint judges of a similar ideological disposition. This is but one consequence of being vague, but the Founders had their reasons for not being overly specific about the structure of the judiciary.
First, the judiciary—while important for maintaining the rule of law and a system of checks and balances—was thought peripheral to the political process. This is not surprising given that the Founders’ intellectual influences—particularly Locke and Montesquieu—treated the judicial branch in a similar manner. Now they recognized, particularly Hamilton who expanded Lord Coke’s theory of judicial oversight, the importance of the judiciary, but it wasn’t seen in the same esteem as the other two branches. Even after the ratification of the Constitution the Supreme Court was thought less important as evidenced by the fact that Washington had a tough time filling all the seats as most would-be appointees chose to stay judges or legislators in their home state where they thought more important work was being done. Let us not forget that the Supreme Court’s first chambers were in the basement of the Merchant Exchange Building in New York City—then the capital of the U.S.
Second, the justices recognized that a growing nation would need a court to grow with it. This is not the same as saying we need a living Constitution, or that the Founders favored a loose construction of the Constitution, it simply means that the Founders understood the workload of the early courts would be relatively light given the length of time it takes to work through the appeals process from the state level up, and the fact that there were very few national laws meaning most cases of original jurisdiction would be heard at the state level as disputes over laws were more likely to occur over state laws.
Third, they knew the inherent dangers of an appointed judiciary. Appointing judges was preferable to electing them in order to insulate them from the effects of politics and public pressure, but it also put them in an advantageous position to control the path of the country relative to Congress and the Executive who had to be elected and had shorter tenures. Therefore, the size and structure of the judiciary was made dependent upon Congress as one way to curb the power of the judiciary.
What we should remember is that when the Founders were vague they were intentionally so, and when they were specific they were intentionally so. And the same goes for silence—such as with judicial review which is nowhere found in the Constitution except through the most creative jurisprudence. This flies in the face of those who would argue for a loose—or broad—interpretation of the Constitution. To assume otherwise is to deny the Founders wrote intentionally or were aware of what they were writing. While they could not foresee all issues or problems, they chose their words carefully and we should treat them as though they did.
Kyle Scott is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Honors College at the University of Houston. His third book, Federalism, is due out March 17th. Dr. Scott has written on the Federalist Papers for Constituting America and proudly serves as a member of its Constitutional Advisory Board. He can be reached at email@example.com. Or, you can follow his blog at www.redroom.com/member/kylescott