Article III and the Birth of a Federal Court System

  • Judicial branch established in Article III of US Constitution
  • Constitution did not provide much detail in describing judiciary; Article III created Supreme Court and allowed Congress to create more "inferior courts"

As urgent as the need was for a national judiciary, the political leaders who met in Philadelphia in 1787 to frame a new Constitution sure didn't put a whole lot of effort into defining what the judicial branch would look like or how it would function. Its constitutional design boiled down to one short sentence in Article III, Section 1: "The judicial Power of the US shall be vested in one supreme court, and in such inferior courts as the congress may from time to time ordain and establish."

The framers, then, indicated that the national judiciary would be divided into two distinct court systems: a supreme court, to be the most powerful tribunal in the nation, and a number of lower courts, created by Congress to, presumably, serve the supreme court. Beyond this, however, the plan for the judicial branch of government was fairly unclear. How many justices would sit on this "supreme court"? How would they be chosen? Would these be officials elected by the people or would they be political appointees? If they were to be appointed, who would appoint them? Could selections be debated, opposed, or refused? If so, by whom? How long would these guys (or gals) serve on the court? And how about those "inferior courts"? How many would there be? Hundreds? Thousands? A mere handful? How "inferior" would they be, particularly if Congress had full authority to create each one as it saw fit? How would these lower courts compare to this supreme court in makeup and jurisdiction? How would the president and Congress affect the functioning of the judiciary? And how, exactly, would the judicial branch serve to balance its executive and legislative partners?

Whew. That's a lot of questions.

Whether by design or oversight, the framers of the Constitution left almost all the work of hammering out the details of how the judicial branch should really function for others to resolve. (Perhaps this is as good a reason as any for why we call the authors of the Constitution "framers," since that's all they provided.) Even after the Constitution was ratified in 1788, the officials of the new national government had a great deal of work ahead of them to refine their own institutions.

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