Guest Essayist: Charles E. Rice, Professor Emeritus of Law at the University of Notre Dame

Article III, Section 2, Clause 2

2: 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 Exceptions Clause of Article III, Section 2, provides that “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.” This was intended, according to Alexander Hamilton, to give “the national legislature… ample authority to make such exceptions, and to prescribe such regulations as will be calculated to obviate or remove [the] inconveniences” which might arise from the powers given in the Constitution to the federal judiciary.” The Federalist, no. 80.

Prior to 1868, the Supreme Court had no occasion to rule on an act of Congress making an exception to its appellate jurisdiction. But when William McCardle, a Mississippi editor, was imprisoned by the federal reconstruction authorities, he sought a writ of habeas corpus from the federal circuit court, asking that court to rule that his detention was invalid. When this petition was denied he appealed to the Supreme Court under an 1867 statute permitting such appeals. After the Supreme Court heard arguments on the case, Congress repealed that part of the statute which had given the Court jurisdiction to hear such appeals.

The Court dismissed the appeal: “We are not at liberty to inquire into the motives of the legislature,” said the Court. “We can only examine into its power under the Constitution; and the power to make exceptions to the appellate jurisdiction of this court is given by express words… without jurisdiction the court cannot proceed at all in any case. 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 case. And this is not less clear upon authority than upon principle.” Ex parte McCardle, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 506, 513-14 (1868).

The 1868 statute upheld in McCardle barred review only under the 1867 statute. In Ex parte Yerger 75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 85 (1868), the Court held that the 1868 statute left untouched the Supreme Court’s power to issue its own writ of habeas corpus to a lower court as provided in the Judiciary Act of 1789. But neither in McCardle nor in Yerger is there any indication that the Court would not have upheld an act withdrawing from the Court appellate jurisdiction in all habeas corpus cases.

In U.S. v. Klein, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 128, 145-46 (1872), the only Supreme Court decision striking down a statute enacted under the Exceptions Clause, the Court spelled out one limitation of that clause. Klein, a former Confederate, sued in the Court of Claims to recover for the seizure and sale of his property by Union forces. He had received a presidential pardon for his Confederate activities. If he had not received a pardon, the law would have prevented his recovery. While the appeal of his case was pending before the Supreme Court, a statute was enacted which provided that, whenever a judgment was founded on such presidential pardons, without other proof of loyalty, the Supreme Court shall have no further jurisdiction of the case. The statute further declared that every pardon granted to a suitor in the Court of Claims which recited that he had been guilty of rebellion or disloyalty, shall, if accepted by him in writing without disclaimer of those recitals, be taken as conclusive evidence of such act of rebellion or disloyalty and his suit shall be dismissed. While declaring the statute unconstitutional, the Supreme Court stated that Congress has power to deny appellate jurisdiction “in a particular class of cases:”

If this act … simply denied the right of appeal in a particular class of cases, there could be no doubt that it must be regarded as an exercise of the power of Congress to make “such exceptions from the appellate jurisdiction” as should seem to it expedient.

The statute in Klein attempted to dictate to the Court how it should decide a class of cases under the guise of limiting its jurisdiction. The Court lost jurisdiction only when the Court of Claims judgment was founded on a particular type of evidence, a pardon. The statute further prescribed that the recitals in the pardon of acts of rebellion would be conclusive proof of those acts. “What is this,” said the Court, “but to prescribe a rule for the decision of a cause in a particular way?” The Klein statute intruded also upon the President’s pardoning power by attempting “to deny to pardons … the effect which this court had adjudged them to have.” In these respects the statute in Klein was different from a statute withdrawing appellate jurisdiction over a class of cases.

Since Klein, the Supreme Court has not defined any further limits to the Exceptions Clause. But there are limits. Congress, for example, could not withdraw from the Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction, “in any case where a Baptist shall be” appellant. This would be unconstitutional, not because of a limitation in the Exceptions Clause, but because of a prohibition in the First Amendment. The religion of the appellant has nothing to do with the authentic nature of the case. The fact that Congress is forbidden by the First Amendment to prohibit appeals by Baptists, Jews, etc., does not mean that there is a restriction on Congress’ power to exclude classes of cases, as determined by the nature of the case, from the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court as well as from the jurisdiction of the lower federal courts.

If a statute removed appellate jurisdiction from the Supreme Court, in, for example, “all cases but patent cases,” such would not be an exception but rather a wholesale obliteration of appellate jurisdiction. On the other hand a surgical removal of appellate jurisdiction in a class of cases, such as prayer in public schools, would be permitted under the Exceptions Clause. Such a withdrawal of jurisdiction would not change the Constitution, as would a constitutional amendment. Unlike a constitutional amendment, a withdrawal of appellate jurisdiction in school prayer cases would not reverse the Supreme Court’s rulings on school prayer. Some state courts might follow those decisions as the last authoritative Supreme Court expression on the subject. Other state courts might disregard the Supreme Court precedents and decide in favor of school prayer once the prospect of reversal by the Supreme Court had been removed.

An argument that fundamental rights should not vary from state to state begs the question of whether there is a fundamental right to uniformity of interpretation by the Supreme Court on every issue involving fundamental rights. The Exceptions Clause, an important element of the system of checks and balances, grants a wide discretion to Congress. There is, in short, a fundamental right to have the system of checks and balances maintained in working order. Without that system, other rights, such as speech, privacy, and free exercise of religion, could be reduced to nullities. This right to a preservation of the system of checks and balances is itself one of the most important constitutional rights.

Charles E. Rice is Professor Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame law School. His areas of specialization are constitutional law and jurisprudence. He currently teaches “Law and Morality” at Notre Dame.

2 replies
  1. Jon
    Jon says:

    You began this explanation with a reference to Federalist, no 80 (I assume) to provide some original context for the clause. You conclude with an observation that there is, “An argument that fundamental rights should not vary from state to state” followed with a question “whether there is a fundamental right to uniformity of interpretation by the Supreme Court on every issue involving fundamental rights.”

    I would like to place the definition of “fundamental rights” in context and then answer the question. For this purpose I will also use the Federalist Papers, in this case no. 43. In order to justify the ratification of the Constitution at all Madison had to address one of the more “delicate” questions of the day.

    “On what principle the Confederation, which stands in the solemn form of a compact among the States, can be superseded without the unanimous consent of the parties to it?”

    Madison’s answer in part is: “The… question is answered… by recurring to… the great principle of self preservation; to the transcendent law of nature and of nature’s God, which declares that the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all political institutions aim…”. In other words the survival of the States was dependent on union.

    From Madison’s answer I conclude the definition of fundamental rights to be based on the “transcendent law of nature…”. The transcendent, antecedent and eternal (according to Locke) Law to all government forever memorialized in our Declaration of Independence.

    As this relates to your question I find myself to be neither safe nor happy at the prospect of the SCOTUS imposing its view of “uniformity” from “State to State”. Too many today accept the notion that the SCOTUS has the last say on Constitutionality. Given the courts lifetime tenure question you pose carries with is the specter of oligarchy. That would make the court as deaf to me as the English parliament was to the colonists.

    Those who like Elaina Kagen who deny there is any such thing as “natural rights” cut away the very foundation of our government. If we accept the fundamental political principle on which this government exists then they have no such “right” to set us adrift in a sea of growing democratic passion. I’m quite certain many of our founders would conclude they have become mad with power, simultaneously claiming everything is for our good. A claim they knew to be made by men and forms of government thru history and which they rejected.

  2. yguy
    yguy says:

    What prevents Congress from giving SCOTUS original jurisdiction in other types of cases than those specified?

    And why don’t cases wherein a state is a party go directly to SCOTUS?


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