Creating the Judicial Branch

The Scope of Judicial Power in the United States

The Constitution notes that the federal courts shall exercise the judicial power of the United States and defines the circumstances in which the judicial power is to be exercised. However, in contrast to Article I, which enumerates the powers of the executive, Article III does not elaborate on what judicial powers will be exercised by the federal courts. Instead, Article III and the 11th Amendment of the Constitution define the circumstances under which judicial power may be exercised by the federal judiciary. For many commentators, this textual silence means that the power to decide disputes was already understood to mean a grant of authority. 

The judicial power of the United States can be exercised when disputes arise that may not be fully addressed by state courts, or in which the federal courts have a particular need to be involved. Consequently, the judicial power extends to cases “arising under” federal laws, including the Constitution, federal statutes, and treaties. Similarly, the identity of the parties in a case or controversy can trigger the exercise of the judicial power of the United States. For example, “Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls” are within the jurisdiction of the federal courts.

The “case or controversy” standard is a set of criteria that limits federal courts from being used to provide advisory opinions. This precedent was set early in our nation’s history when Chief Justice John Jay refused a request from President George Washington for advice regarding some legal issues relating to America’s neutrality in the midst of European conflicts. This has led to a complex tangle of case law that requires that a legitimate and serious dispute between two parties must exist before the federal courts can be involved. However, when federal courts are appropriately involved in litigation, they are theoretically the last word.

The Relationship between Federal and State Courts

Federal courts are not meant to interfere with state courts unduly. However, they can have concurrent jurisdiction over cases where both state and federal courts have a legitimate basis to hear the case. These kinds of issues arise frequently. For example, a dispute involving behavior that may or may not be lawful under state law may also have implications in regards to federal law. State courts will certainly have jurisdiction to decide the state law issue and may well decide how federal law regulates the behavior. However, federal courts unquestionably have jurisdiction on appeal to decide how the federal law applies to the situation. The 11th Amendment further limits the judicial power of the United States in certain cases in which a state has been sued. That amendment has been interpreted to mean that certain suits against states can only be brought forth in state courts.