IN respect to all the other subjects of the judicial power, the original jurisdiction is vested in the inferior tribunals ordained and established by congress, which consist of circuit courts, district courts, and territorial courts. These are all courts of the United States — the judges are appointed by the president — their power is limited to the power which is possessed under the Constitution of the United States — and the decisions of them all may be ultimately reviewed, reversed, or affirmed in the supreme court. But congress has undertaken, in some instances, to vest in state courts a power of proceeding for offences committed against the United States, which has produced a question of considerable magnitude, not yet definitively settled. Some of the state courts have refused to exercise this jurisdiction, and there seems much weight in their objections.

The principle on which the judicial power of the Constitution is founded, has already been observed to be, its forming an integral part of the system of government. It was deemed as necessary to keep the judicial powers of the states and the United States separate and distinct, as the legislative and executive powers.

To admit the state courts to a share of the judicial powers of the United States in criminal cases, would tend, it was supposed, not only to break down those barriers which were deemed important to the self-preservation of the United States, but would produce perplexity and confusion, dangerous to the harmony of both.

The office of congress is to appoint those courts which are to receive the powers vested in the United States, not to grant those powers to the courts. Congress are not the donors, but the mere agents of distribution. Impressions sometimes arise, and consequences often flow from the latter capacity, which do not regularly attend the former. The gratification of making donations cannot be enjoyed by those who are only the agents to distribute, and when not only that which is to be distributed is precisely defined and limited, but those who are exclusively to receive it are exactly described, there seems so little latitude in the power as to excite some surprise that it should have been carried so far. But the motives for it were of the best kind. It was deemed a convenience to individuals to give them a forum as near to their residence as possible: it was also perhaps considered indicative of a confidence in the state governments, and if the Constitution had been accommodated to these principles, this donation of power might have been justifiable, but unless the vesting jurisdiction in a tribunal already ordained and established by a state, can be considered as ordaining and establishing a court by congress, the objections to this well meant measure seem insurmountable.

This is not, however, to be confounded with the legal principles that arise when an act amounts to an offence both against the state and the United States. As congress cannot in one case confer jurisdiction, they cannot in the other abridge it; hence those acts of congress providing for the punishment of counterfeiting the current coin of the United States, 1 and forgery of the notes of the bank of the United States, 2 which declared that nothing therein contained should be construed to deprive the state courts of jurisdiction under the laws of the several states of offences made cognizable therein, were strictly constitutional and proper.

In no case can the circuit or district courts exercise jurisdiction, unless it be so provided by congress. The judicial part of the Constitution, except so far as relates to the supreme court, must be set in motion by congress. It is, therefore, proper to show to what extent the power has been exercised by congress, observing at the same time that nothing prevents them from extending the jurisdiction of those or other courts which they may hereafter ordain and establish, provided they do not exceed the limits of the Constitution.

The original jurisdiction of the circuit court now extends to suits in which the United States are plaintiff; or petitioners, to suits between citizens of different states and those in which an alien is a party, to suits relative to patents granted under the authority of the United States, and to suits brought by or against the Bank of the United States.

In criminal cases the circuit court has original jurisdiction of all crimes and offences cognizable under the authority of the United States, except, as we have seen, proceedings against ambassadors and other public ministers or their domestics, which, whenever a court of law can exercise a jurisdiction consistently with the law of nations, are reserved for the supreme court.

The original jurisdiction of the district court in civil cases includes all causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction; seizures under laws of impost, navigation or trade of the United States, made on waters navigable from the sea by vessels of ten or more tons burthen, within their respective districts or on the high seas; seizures on land, or other waters than aforesaid; penalties and forfeitures; suits brought by an alien for a tort only in violation of the laws of nations, or a treaty of the United States; suits at common law where the United States sue, and the matter in dispute amounts, exclusive of costs, to one hundred dollars; suits against consuls or vice consuls.

In criminal cases, cognizance is given to the district courts of all crimes and offences cognizable under the authority of the United States, committed within their respective districts, or on the high seas, when whipping not exceeding thirty stripes, a fine not exceeding one hundred dollars, or a term of imprisonment not exceeding six months is to be inflicted, 3 and with this qualification it may sustain prosecutions against consuls or vice consuls.

In respect to the latter, it deserves notice, that this legislative provision subjecting them in certain supposed cases to the jurisdiction of the lowest court in the Union, is somewhat at variance with the high rank that they are placed in by the Constitution. It cannot, however, be said to be inconsistent with the Constitution itself, which in respect to all the jurisdiction of the supreme court contains nothing exclusive of the inferior courts of the United States, yet the entire omission of this clause, which, qualified as it is, is really inoperative, would have better harmonized with the principles manifestly kept in view by the Constitution.

1. Act of April 21, 1806.

2. Acts of February 24, 1807, and April 10, 1816.

3. This part of the criminal jurisdiction of the district court is as yet a dead letter. There is no crime or offence against the United States, for which a punishment within the limits above mentioned is prescribed. It cannot be understood that prosecutions for offences punishable by the acts of congress in a more severe manner, can be sustained with a view to the judgment of the court being reduced within these limits.

Next | Previous | Contents | Text Version