The U.S. Constitution: The Supreme Court and its powers

This is the eighth in a series of essays about the United States Constitution. It covers Article III - the Judicial Branch.

The Article has only three Sections. Section 1 simply states that a Supreme Court, and other "inferior" courts established by Congress, are vested with the judicial power of the United States.

Bruce Simmons

The federal judges appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate may serve for life, and their salaries can be increased but never reduced. They can be impeached.

Section 2 explains the jurisdiction of the Court. It has original, appellate, and diversity (given to it by the Eleventh Amendment) jurisdiction. Most of the few cases it hears are appeals from lower federal courts. Original cases may be associated with treaties, ambassadors, public ministers, maritime, and cases between states.

Diversity jurisdiction involves civil suits between citizens of different states. A citizen for these types of cases is defined as a person, town, city, or corporation. The civil suit, as of today, must exceed $75,000 in damages.

Section 2 also states that trials for federal crimes should be held in the state where they were committed and should be jury trials. Congress determines the location of the trial if the offense was not committed in a state (e.g., maritime).

Section 3 defines what treason is. Treason is when an American citizen wages war against our nation or gives aid and comfort to an enemy. No person can be convicted of treason unless two or more witnesses are willing to testify against the person, or if the person confesses in open court. The family of a person convicted or accused of treason cannot be punished by the Court - criminally or civilly.

The Judicial powers of our Supreme Court have always been under scrutiny and debate. Thomas Jefferson questioned its powers from day one. He and the first great Chief Justice, fellow Virginian and distant cousin John Marshall, disagreed on how the Court should decide cases.

Jefferson was a believer in sovereignty, where the majority ruled - right or wrong - and felt courts should not have the authority of judicial review. Judicial review means that the Supreme Court can take up a case to see if a state or federal law is unconstitutional.

Jefferson felt Common Law principles should be used - deciding each case separately with no ramifications for other cases. Justice Marshall established the Judicial Review concept in the landmark case of "Marbury v. Madison."

Jefferson's many essays against the concept are still studied in classes on Constitutional Law. He felt the Court should advise on issues of constitutionality but not rule; rather, the people should vote on any issues to establish a majority opinion.

Another issue debated by scholars of the Court is how Justices interpret the Constitution. When the Senate Judicial Committee interviews the President's choices for open judgeships, some Senators ask them about their philosophy on how to apply the Constitution in their rulings.

Some judges with a strict interpretation of words feel that neutral, and not personal, decisions should be made. Another technique is to analyze original intent and history to better interpret the words. Fundamentalists rely on principles such as natural rights or limited government to guide their decisions.

Modernists feel that the Court should adapt to changing circumstances. Depending on the case, many Justices may use some or all these methods to decide a case, but most have their preferences.

Article III also emphasizes that a Justice does not need a law degree to be selected for the court, although a solid feel for the law is important in the selection.

Finally, how many Justices should be on the Court? The Court's numbers have changed six times over the years. There have been as few as six original members and as many as the 1863 total of 10. The Chief Justice is a peer and not a boss. The Chief Justice oversees the administration of the Court. There is no age limit - young or old - for the Court.

• Bruce Simmons of Aurora is a former teacher with more than 25 years' experience teaching social studies and humanities. This is one in a series of essays describing the history and meaning of the U.S. Constitution. The next two installments will deal with the remaining four Articles of the Constitution. Additional essays will cover the key Amendments.

The Framers: Delegates at the Constitutional Convention

Former social studies teacher explains the Constitution

Examining the Constitution: Compromise in Article I

The Constitution: Article II — The Executive Branch, the presidency

The Constitution: Executive Branch responsibilities, powers

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