Federalist 80: The Jurisdiction of the Judiciary

In this lengthy paper, Hamilton discusses the jurisdiction of the Judiciary branch.  That sounds a bit odd to our modern ears where we suppose that the third branch of government has unlimited authority to make pronouncements.  But that is not the case nor was it the intent of the Founding Fathers.  It should be remembered that the overall authority of the federal government was designed to be limited as well, and this is merely a logical extension of that philosophy. Because the reach of the federal government is limited, it only makes sense that the reach of the Judicial branch therein should also be limited.

For each instance where the Constitution gives the Judiciary jurisdiction Hamilton offers the Founder’s reasoning.  He jumps around a bit so I will attempt to put them into seven larger categories.

The first instance where there is a dispute about the laws of the United States and their execution.  For instance, the individual states are prohibited from printing money and imposing taxes on the importation of goods.  Of what good are the laws if they cannot be enforced?   A single Judiciary is charged with interpreting the laws uniformly for all.

The second is in “execution of the provisions expressly contained in the articles of Union”.[1]  Here Hamilton is talking about the difficulty of having thirteen individual states interpreting those statutes set forth in the Constitution.  It is evident that we need a single entity to ensure consistent interpretation thereof.

The third instance is where the United States is a party to the dispute.  Hamilton makes the case that this is self-evident.  In these cases, there needs to be a system that has the authority to bind the country to the laws that it has established, and it is natural that it would need to be a federal function.  This may seem obvious to us today, but it most certainly was not to the Founders.  We were to be a nation of laws, and those laws were to be enforced uniformly.

The fourth instance “involve the PEACE of the CONFEDERACY, whether they relate to the intercourse between the United States and foreign nations, or to that between the States themselves”.  Here Hamilton discusses the possibility that a single state might act in a way that causes dispute between that state and a foreign power.  Since another country would undoubtably view that action as having originated in the United States, the jurisdiction to adjudicate such a case would have to lie with the country and not the individual state.  The “denial or perversion of justice by the sentences of courts” is one of the “just causes of war”, so it stands to reason that the federal courts, and not the individual states, need to have jurisdiction there.  He draws a distinction between disputes that might arise from treaties and those involving simply the violation of a “municipal law”, but here we see once again the Founder’s profound desire to avoid international conflicts.  If a foreigner is involved, the jurisdiction needs to be federal, if for no other reason than to prevent the possibly that action against a single foreign individual might be considered “aggression upon his sovereign” and lead to a greater conflict.

In addition, there was, and continues to be, the possibility of conflict between states.  This is the fifth instance that Hamilton addresses. While the most likely conflict might be disputes arising from borders, there was always the possibility of conflicts between individuals in different states.  Europe, and Germany in particular, had a history of these disagreements causing wars and our Founders intended that the Judiciary would help to resolve these conflicts and keep the “harmony between the States”.

In the fifth case, Hamilton goes on to point out the Constitutional language which says “the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens of the several States.” No state can deprive the members of another state of the rights of citizenship within the United States.  For this language to have any meaning there needs to be federal jurisdiction over that violation, and a court to adjudicate disputes.

At the time Hamilton is writing this paper it was common practice for States to issue land grants to individuals.  This provides the sixth case requiring federal involvement. It might be possible for a State to pass ownership of the same piece of land to two different people.  It might happen by accident and State law might be insufficient to resolve the dispute.  In such an instance the case would be decided by a federal Judiciary.

The seventh and final case involves disputes between any state, or citizen of any state, and a foreign power.  The Founders felt that it would be best if such disputes were handled as federal issues rather than as things to be resolved by the individual states.

In a nod toward a more representative form of government, Hamilton points out that if it is felt that the Judiciary has too much power “the national legislature will have ample authority to make such EXCEPTIONS, and to prescribe such regulations as will be calculated to obviate or remove these inconveniences.”  The Legislature does have the authority to change the jurisdiction of the courts if it sees fit.  It would be completely Constitutional for Congress to remove certain items from Judicial jurisdiction.  While this possibility has been raised several times in recent history it has not been acted upon.  Regardless, it is important to remember the jurisdiction of the Federal courts is not unlimited should the Congress decide to put new boundaries in place, or to enforce those that Hamilton enumerated here.

[1] All quotes are from https://guides.loc.gov/federalist-papers/text-71-80#s-lg-box-wrapper-25493464


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1 thought on “Federalist 80: The Jurisdiction of the Judiciary”

  1. Article 3 of the Constitution creates a Supreme Court, but it leaves it to Congress to create, if necessary, the “inferior” courts which means the district courts and the circuit court of appeals.
    Congress has the power to limit the jurisdiciton of the federal district courts. For example in the Norris La-Guardia Act it limited the power of the federal courts to issue injunctions in labor cases.
    Congress complains about the federal courts but it does not limt their jurisdiction. It probably prefers to have the courts make unpopular decisions in tought issues

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