Judicial Branch & Supreme Court
Judicial Branch & Supreme Court
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The Judiciary of the Articles of Confederation

  • Lack of judiciary in Articles of Confederation became a problem because no one could settle disputes between states
  • Constitution created in 1787 to strengthen government; included establishment of national judiciary

In practice, the Confederation government, which took effect in March 1781, left much to be desired. It failed to unify the various regions of the county, stabilize the economy, or coordinate policy among the different states. Furthermore, the national government had no means by which to enforce United States laws; each state could—and did—interpret federal statues as it pleased and chose when—or even if—to administer them. Often, this led to disputes between states, which were difficult, if not impossible, to settle since each state relied on the ruling of its own courts, usually dismissing the others. As the Founding Fathers began to see, the Confederation's system of law wasn't much of a system at all. For it to function effectively, it needed to be—gasp!—larger, and it needed to have—yikes!—greater authority.

"Is it possible," Alexander Hamilton pondered in a 1788 essay in The Federalist, "that the people of America will longer consent to trust their honour, their happiness, their safety, on so precarious a foundation?"1 He wrote of the failures of the original Articles of Confederation and proposed, with a palpable sense of urgency, several suggestions for improvement, including one to remedy what he called the "circumstance which crowns the defect of the confederation."2 Hamilton proclaimed, "Laws are a dead letter without courts to expound and define their true meaning and operation," and he called, explicitly, for the creation of a single "supreme tribunal"—a supreme court—to allow uniform application of the law throughout the United States.3 Hamilton's plea, along with the undeniable sense that, after seven years, the Confederation government had shown itself to be deeply flawed, led the framers of the second constitution—what we know today as the United States Constitution—to make some sweeping changes.

Next Page: Article III and the Birth of a Federal Court System
Previous Page: The Littlest Government

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