31 January 1788
The nature and extent of the judicial power of the United States, proposed
to be granted by this constitution, claims our particular attention.
Much has been said and written upon the subject of this new system on both
sides, but I have not met with any writer, who has discussed the judicial
powers with any degree of accuracy. And yet it is obvious, that we can form but
very imperfect ideas of the manner in which this government will work, or the
effect it will have in changing the internal police and mode of distributing
justice at present subsisting in the respective states, without a thorough
investigation of the powers of the judiciary and of the manner in which they
will operate. This government is a complete system, not only for making, but
for executing laws. And the courts of law, which will be constituted by it, are
not only to decide upon the constitution and the laws made in pursuance of it,
but by officers subordinate to them to execute all their decisions. The real
effect of this system of government, will therefore be brought home to the
feelings of the people, through the medium of the judicial power. It is,
moreover, of great importance, to examine with care the nature and extent of
the judicial power, because those who are to be vested with it, are to be
placed in a situation altogether unprecedented in a free country. They are to
be rendered totally independent, both of the people and the legislature, both
with respect to their offices and salaries. No errors they may commit can be
corrected by any power above them, if any such power there be, nor can they be
removed from office for making ever so many erroneous adjudications.
The only causes for which they can be displaced, is, conviction of treason,
bribery, and high crimes and misdemeanors.
This part of the plan is so modelled, as to authorise the courts, not only
to carry into execution the powers expressly given, but where these are wanting
or ambiguously expressed, to supply what is wanting by their own decisions.
That we may be enabled to form a just opinion on this subject, I shall, in
1st. Examine the nature and extent of the judicial powers — and
2d. Enquire, whether the courts who are to exercise them, are so constituted
as to afford reasonable ground of confidence, that they will exercise them for
the general good.
With a regard to the nature and extent of the judicial powers, I have to
regret my want of capacity to give that full and minute explanation of them
that the subject merits. To be able to do this, a man should be possessed of a
degree of law knowledge far beyond what I pretend to. A number of hard words
and technical phrases are used in this part of the system, about the meaning of
which gentlemen learned in the law differ.
Its advocates know how to avail themselves of these phrases. In a number of
instances, where objections are made to the powers given to the judicial, they
give such an explanation to the technical terms as to avoid them.
Though I am not competent to give a perfect explanation of the powers
granted to this department of the government, I shall yet attempt to trace some
of the leading features of it, from which I presume it will appear, that they
will operate to a total subversion of the state judiciaries, if not, to the
legislative authority of the states.
In article 3d, sect. 2d, it is said, "The judicial power shall extend
to all cases in law and equity arising under this constitution, the laws of the
United States, and treaties made, or which shall be made, under their
The first article to which this power extends, is, all cases in law and
equity arising under this constitution.
What latitude of construction this clause should receive, it is not easy to
say. At first view, one would suppose, that it meant no more than this, that
the courts under the general government should exercise, not only the powers of
courts of law, but also that of courts of equity, in the manner in which those
powers are usually exercised in the different states. But this cannot be the
meaning, because the next clause authorises the courts to take cognizance of
all cases in law and equity arising under the laws of the United States; this
last article, I conceive, conveys as much power to the general judicial as any
of the state courts possess.
The cases arising under the constitution must be different from those
arising under the laws, or else the two clauses mean exactly the same thing.
The cases arising under the constitution must include such, as bring into
question its meaning, and will require an explanation of the nature and extent
of the powers of the different departments under it.
This article, therefore, vests the judicial with a power to resolve all
questions that may arise on any case on the construction of the constitution,
either in law or in equity.
1st. They are authorised to determine all questions that may arise upon the
meaning of the constitution in law. This article vests the courts with
authority to give the constitution a legal construction, or to explain it
according to the rules laid down for construing a law. — These rules give
a certain degree of latitude of explanation. According to this mode of
construction, the courts are to give such meaning to the constitution as
comports best with the common, and generally received acceptation of the words
in which it is expressed, regarding their ordinary and popular use, rather than
their grammatical propriety. Where words are dubious, they will be explained by
the context. The end of the clause will be attended to, and the words will be
understood, as having a view to it; and the words will not be so understood as
to bear no meaning or a very absurd one.
2d. The judicial are not only to decide questions arising upon the meaning
of the constitution in law, but also in equity.
By this they are empowered, to explain the constitution according to the
reasoning spirit of it, without being confined to the words or letter.
"From this method of interpreting laws (says Blackstone) by the reason
of them, arises what we call equity;" which is thus defined by Grotius,
"the correction of that, wherein the law, by reason of its universality,
is deficient["]; for since in laws all cases cannot be foreseen, or
expressed, it is necessary, that when the decrees of the law cannot be applied
to particular cases, there should some where be a power vested of defining
those circumstances, which had they been foreseen the legislator would have
expressed; and these are the cases, which according to Grotius, ["]lex non
exacte definit, sed arbitrio boni viri permittet."
The same learned author observes, "That equity, thus depending
essentially upon each individual case, there can be no established rules and
fixed principles of equity laid down, without destroying its very essence, and
reducing it to a positive law."
From these remarks, the authority and business of the courts of law, under
this clause, may be understood.
They will give the sense of every article of the constitution, that may from
time to time come before them. And in their decisions they will not confine
themselves to any fixed or established rules, but will determine, according to
what appears to them, the reason and spirit of the constitution. The opinions
of the supreme court, whatever they may be, will have the force of law; because
there is no power provided in the constitution, that can correct their errors,
or controul their adjudications. From this court there is no appeal. And I
conceive the legislature themselves, cannot set aside a judgment of this court,
because they are authorised by the constitution to decide in the last resort.
The legislature must be controuled by the constitution, and not the
constitution by them. They have therefore no more right to set aside any
judgment pronounced upon the construction of the constitution, than they have
to take from the president, the chief command of the army and navy, and commit
it to some other person. The reason is plain; the judicial and executive derive
their authority from the same source, that the legislature do theirs; and
therefore in all cases, where the constitution does not make the one
responsible to, or controulable by the other, they are altogether independent
of each other.
The judicial power will operate to effect, in the most certain, but yet
silent and imperceptible manner, what is evidently the tendency of the
constitution: — I mean, an entire subversion of the legislative, executive
and judicial powers of the individual states. Every adjudication of the supreme
court, on any question that may arise upon the nature and extent of the general
government, will affect the limits of the state jurisdiction. In proportion as
the former enlarge the exercise of their powers, will that of the latter be
That the judicial power of the United States, will lean strongly in favour
of the general government, and will give such an explanation to the
constitution, as will favour an extension of its jurisdiction, is very evident
from a variety of considerations.
1st. The constitution itself strongly countenances such a mode of
construction. Most of the articles in this system, which convey powers of any
considerable importance, are conceived in general and indefinite terms, which
are either equivocal, ambiguous, or which require long definitions to unfold
the extent of their meaning. The two most important powers committed to any
government, those of raising money, and of raising and keeping up troops, have
already been considered, and shewn to be unlimitted by any thing but the
discretion of the legislature. The clause which vests the power to pass all
laws which are proper and necessary, to carry the powers given into execution,
it has been shewn, leaves the legislature at liberty, to do every thing, which
in their judgment is best. It is said, I know, that this clause confers no
power on the legislature, which they would not have had without it —
though I believe this is not the fact, yet, admitting it to be, it implies that
the constitution is not to receive an explanation strictly, according to its
letter; but more power is implied than is expressed. And this clause, if it is
to be considered, as explanatory of the extent of the powers given, rather than
giving a new power, is to be understood as declaring, that in construing any of
the articles conveying power, the spirit, intent and design of the clause,
should be attended to, as well as the words in their common acceptation.
This constitution gives sufficient colour for adopting an equitable
construction, if we consider the great end and design it professedly has in
view — these appear from its preamble to be, "to form a more perfect
union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common
defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to
ourselves and posterity." The design of this system is here expressed, and
it is proper to give such a meaning to the various parts, as will best promote
the accomplishment of the end; this idea suggests itself naturally upon reading
the preamble, and will countenance the court in giving the several articles
such a sense, as will the most effectually promote the ends the constitution
had in view — how this manner of explaining the constitution will operate
in practice, shall be the subject of future enquiry.
2d. Not only will the constitution justify the courts in inclining to this
mode of explaining it, but they will be interested in using this latitude of
interpretation. Every body of men invested with office are tenacious of power;
they feel interested, and hence it has become a kind of maxim, to hand down
their offices, with all its rights and privileges, unimpared to their
successors; the same principle will influence them to extend their power, and
increase their rights; this of itself will operate strongly upon the courts to
give such a meaning to the constitution in all cases where it can possibly be
done, as will enlarge the sphere of their own authority. Every extension of the
power of the general legislature, as well as of the judicial powers, will
increase the powers of the courts; and the dignity and importance of the
judges, will be in proportion to the extent and magnitude of the powers they
exercise. I add, it is highly probable the emolument of the judges will be
increased, with the increase of the business they will have to transact and its
importance. From these considerations the judges will be interested to extend
the powers of the courts, and to construe the constitution as much as possible,
in such a way as to favour it; and that they will do it, appears probable.
3d. Because they will have precedent to plead, to justify them in it. It is
well known, that the courts in England, have by their own authority, extended
their jurisdiction far beyond the limits set them in their original
institution, and by the laws of the land.
The court of exchequer is a remarkable instance of this. It was originally
intended principally to recover the king's debts, and to order the revenues of
the crown. It had a common law jurisdiction, which was established merely for
the benefit of the king's accomptants. We learn from Blackstone, that the
proceedings in this court are grounded on a writ called quo minus, in which the
plaintiff suggests, that he is the king's farmer or debtor, and that the
defendant hath done him the damage complained of, by which he is less able to
pay the king. These suits, by the statute of Rutland, are expressly directed to
be confined to such matters as specially concern the king, or his ministers in
the exchequer. And by the articuli super cartas, it is enacted, that no common
pleas be thenceforth held in the exchequer contrary to the form of the great
charter: but now any person may sue in the exchequer. The surmise of being
debtor to the king being matter of form, and mere words of course; and the
court is open to all the nation.
When the courts will have a precedent before them of a court which extended
its jurisdiction in opposition to an act of the legislature, is it not to be
expected that they will extend theirs, especially when there is nothing in the
constitution expressly against it? and they are authorised to construe its
meaning, and are not under any controul?
This power in the judicial, will enable them to mould the government, into
almost any shape they please. — The manner in which this may be effected
we will hereafter examine.
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