Debates on the Judiciary during the Convention and Ratification

The Constitutional Convention adjourned on September 17, 1787.  James Madison, no doubt still exhausted from the four months of tedious debate and compromise in Philadelphia, wrote to Thomas Jefferson in October about the work of the Convention: 

[It] formed a task more difficult than can be well conceived by those who were not concerned in the execution of it.  Adding to these considerations the natural diversity of human opinions on all new and complicated subjects, it is impossible to consider the degree of concord which ultimately prevailed as less than a miracle.  (Madison letter to Jefferson, October 24, 1787)

Constitutional Provisions Relating to the Judiciary

Article III of the Constitution emerged as the shortest, most vague, of the articles creating the three branches of the national government.  In three sections, Article III  provided:

  1. Federal judicial power vested in one supreme court, and such inferior courts as Congress might create. Federal judges were given tenure for good behavior, and their compensation cannot be diminished during their time in office.
  2. Jurisdiction (or power) over…
    • …cases in law and equity arising under the Constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties, cases affecting ambassadors or other public ministers and consuls, and cases involving admiralty and maritime matters;
    • …controversies to which the United States  is a party, controversies between two or more states or between a state and citizens of another state,  controversies between citizens of the same state claiming lands under grants of different states, and . controversies between a state or the citizens thereof and foreign states, citizens or subjects.
  3. Original jurisdiction (meaning the Supreme Court presides over a trial from which there is no appeal) over cases affecting ambassadors, public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state is a party.  Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction (meaning review of trials held in lower courts), both to law and fact, with such exceptions and regulations as Congress shall make.
  4. Jury trials in criminal cases, either in the state where the crime was committed or, if not committed in any state, when and where Congress directs.

Articles I, II and VI also contained brief provisions relating the judiciary.  Article II gave the President the power to nominate federal judges, with the Senate (Article I) having the power to approve or reject those nominations.  Article I gave Congress the power to create lower federal courts and judgeships, and to determine the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction.  Article VI required state judges to uphold the Constitution, laws and treaties of the United States because they are “the supreme Law of the Land.”