Article 3, Section 1

Document 38

Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution 3:§§ 1568--71, 1574--78, 1583--84, 1591, 1593, 1601--21, 1627, 1629--30


§ 1568. The importance of the establishment of a judicial department in the national government has been already incidentally discussed under other heads. The want of it constituted one of the vital defects of the confederation. And every government must, in its essence, be unsafe and unfit for a free people, where such a department does not exist, with powers co-extensive with those of the legislative department. Where there is no judicial department to interpret, pronounce, and execute the law, to decide controversies, and to enforce rights, the government must either perish by its own imbecility, or the other departments of government must usurp powers, for the purpose of commanding obedience, to the destruction of liberty. The will of those, who govern, will become, under such circumstances, absolute and despotic; and it is wholly immaterial, whether power is vested in a single tyrant, or in an assembly of tyrants. No remark is better founded in human experience, than that of Montesquieu, that "there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive powers." And it is no less true, that personal security and private property rest entirely upon the wisdom, the stability, and the integrity of the courts of justice. If that government can be truly said to be despotic and intolerable, in which the law is vague and uncertain; it cannot but be rendered still more oppressive and more mischievous, when the actual administration of justice is dependent upon caprice, or favour, upon the will of rulers, or the influence of popularity. When power becomes right, it is of little consequence, whether decisions rest upon corruption, or weakness, upon the accidents of chance, or upon deliberate wrong. In every well organized government, therefore, with reference to the security both of public rights and private rights, it is indispensable, that there should be a judicial department to ascertain, and decide rights, to punish crimes, to administer justice, and to protect the innocent from injury and usurpation.

§ 1569. In the national government the power is equally as important, as in the state governments. The laws and treaties, and even the constitution, of the United States, would become a dead letter without it. Indeed, in a complicated government, like ours, where there is an assemblage of republics, combined under a common head, the necessity of some controlling judicial power, to ascertain and enforce the powers of the Union, is, if possible, still more striking. The laws of the whole would otherwise be in continual danger of being contravened by the laws of the parts. The national government would be reduced to a servile dependence upon the states; and the same scenes would be again acted over in solemn mockery, which began in the neglect, and ended in the ruin, of the confederation. Power, without adequate means to enforce it, is like a body in a state of suspended animation. For all practical purposes it is, as if its faculties were extinguished. Even if there were no danger of collision between the laws and powers of the Union, and those of the states, it is utterly impossible, that, without some superintending judiciary establishment, there could be any uniform administration, or interpretation of them. The idea of uniformity of decision by thirteen independent and co-ordinate tribunals (and the number is now advanced to twenty-four) is absolutely visionary, if not absurd. The consequence would necessarily be, that neither the constitution, nor the laws, neither the rights and powers of the Union, nor those of the states, would be the same in any two states. And there would be perpetual fluctuations and changes, growing out of the diversity of judgment, as well as of local institutions, interests, and habits of thought.

§ 1570. Two ends, then, of paramount importance, and fundamental to a free government, are proposed to be attained by the establishment of a national judiciary. The first is a due execution of the powers of the government; and the second is a uniformity in the interpretation and operation of those powers, and of the laws enacted in pursuance of them. The power of interpreting the laws involves necessarily the function to ascertain, whether they are conformable to the constitution, or not; and if not so conformable, to declare them void and inoperative. As the constitution is the supreme law of the land, in a conflict between that and the laws, either of congress, or of the states, it becomes the duty of the judiciary to follow that only, which is of paramount obligation. This results from the very theory of a republican constitution of government; for otherwise the acts of the legislature and executive would in effect become supreme and uncontrollable, notwithstanding any prohibitions or limitations contained in the constitution; and usurpations of the most unequivocal and dangerous character might be assumed, without any remedy within the reach of the citizens. The people would thus be at the mercy of their rulers, in the state and national governments; and an omnipotence would practically exist, like that claimed for the British Parliament. The universal sense of America has decided, that in the last resort the judiciary must decide upon the constitutionality of the acts and laws of the general and state governments, so far as they are capable of being made the subject of judicial controversy. It follows, that, when they are subjected to the cognizance of the judiciary, its judgments must be conclusive; for otherwise they may be disregarded, and the acts of the legislature and executive enjoy a secure and irresistible triumph. To the people at large, therefore, such an institution is peculiarly valuable; and it ought to be eminently cherished by them. On its firm and independent structure they may repose with safety, while they perceive in it a faculty, which is only set in motion, when applied to; but which, when thus brought into action, must proceed with competent power, if required to correct the error, or subdue the oppression of the other branches of the government. Fortunately too for the people, the functions of the judiciary, in deciding on constitutional questions, is not one, which it is at liberty to decline. While it is bound not to take jurisdiction, if it should not, it is equally true, that it must take jurisdiction, if it should. It cannot, as the legislature may, avoid a measure, because it approaches the confines of the constitution. It cannot pass it by, because it is doubtful. With whatever doubt, with whatever difficulties a case may be attended, it must decide it, when it arises in judgment. It has no more right to decline the exercise of a jurisdiction, which is given, than to usurp that, which is not given. The one, or the other would be treason to the constitution.

§ 1571. The framers of the constitution, having these great principles in view, adopted two fundamental rules with entire unanimity; first, that a national judiciary ought to be established; secondly, that the national judiciary ought to possess powers co-extensive with those of the legislative department. Indeed, the latter necessarily flowed from the former, and was treated, and must always be treated, as an axiom of political government. But these provisions alone would not be sufficient to ensure a complete administration of public justice, or to give permanency to the republic. The judiciary must be so organized, as to carry into complete effect all the purposes of its establishment. It must possess wisdom, learning, integrity, independence, and firmness. It must at once possess the power and the means to check usurpation, and enforce execution of its judgments. Mr. Burke has, with singular sagacity and pregnant brevity, stated the doctrine, which every republic should steadily sustain, and conscientiously inculcate. "Whatever," says he, "is supreme in a state ought to have, as much as possible, its judicial authority so constituted, as not only not to depend upon it, but in some sort to balance it. It ought to give security to its justice against its power. It ought to make its judicature, as it were, something exterior to the state." The best manner, in which this is to be accomplished, must mainly depend upon the mode of appointment, the tenure of office, the compensation of the judges, and the jurisdiction confided to the department in its various branches.

. . . . .

§ 1574. In the convention, which framed the constitution, no diversity of opinion existed, as to the establishment of a supreme tribunal. The proposition was unanimously adopted. In respect to the establishment of inferior tribunals, some diversity of opinion was in the early stages of the proceedings exhibited. A proposition to establish them was at first adopted. This was struck out by the vote of five states against four, two being divided; and a proposition was then adopted, "that the national legislature be empowered to appoint inferior tribunals," by the vote of seven states against three, one being divided; and ultimately this proposition received the unanimous approbation of the convention.

§ 1575. To the establishment of one court of supreme and final jurisdiction, there do not seem to have been any strenuous objections generally insisted on in the state conventions, though many were urged against certain portions of the jurisdiction, proposed by the constitution to be vested in the courts of the United States. The principal question seems to have been of a different nature, whether it ought to be a distinct co-ordinate department, or a branch of the legislature. And here it was remarked by the Federalist, that the same contradiction of opinion was observable among the opponents of the constitution, as in many other cases. Many of those, who objected to the senate, as a court of impeachment, upon the ground of an improper intermixture of legislative and judicial functions, were, at least by implication, advocates for the propriety of vesting the ultimate decision of all causes in the whole, or in a part of the legislative body.

§ 1576. The arguments, or rather suggestions, upon which this scheme was propounded, were to the following effect. The authority of the Supreme Court of the United States, as a separate and independent body, will be superior to that of the legislature. The power of construing the laws according to the spirit of the constitution will enable that court to mould them into whatever shape, it may think proper; especially, as its decisions will not be in any manner subject to the revision and correction of the legislative body. This is as unprecedented, as it is dangerous. In Great Britain the judicial power in the last resort resides in the house of lords, which is a branch of the legislature. And this part of the British government has been imitated in the state constitutions in general. The parliament of Great Britain, and the legislatures of the several states, can at any time rectify by law the exceptionable decisions of their respective courts. But the errors and usurpations of the Supreme Court of the United States will be uncontrollable, and remediless.

§ 1577. The friends of the constitution, in answer to these suggestions, replied, that they were founded in false reasoning, or a misconception of fact. In the first place, there was nothing in the plan, which directly empowered the national courts to construe the laws according to the spirit of the constitution, or which gave them any greater latitude in this respect, than what was claimed and exercised by the state courts. The constitution, indeed, ought to be the standard of construction for the laws; and wherever there was an opposition, the laws ought to give place to the constitution. But this doctrine was not deducible from any circumstance peculiar to this part of the constitution, but from the general theory of a limited constitution; and, as far as it was true, it was equally applicable to the state governments.

§ 1578. So far as the objection went to the organization of the Supreme Court, as a distinct and independent department, it admitted of a different answer. It was founded upon the general maxim of requiring a separation of the different departments of government, as most conducive to the preservation of public liberty and private rights. It would not, indeed, absolutely violate that maxim, to allow the ultimate appellate jurisdiction to be vested in one branch of the legislative body. But there were many urgent reasons, why the proposed organization would be preferable. It would secure greater independence, impartiality, and uniformity in the administration of justice.

. . . . .

§ 1583. In regard to the power of constituting inferior courts of the Union, it is evidently calculated to obviate the necessity of having recourse to the Supreme Court in every case of federal cognizance. It enables the national government to institute, or authorize, in each state or district of the United States, a tribunal competent to the determination of all matters of national jurisdiction within its limits. One of two courses only could be open for adoption; either to create inferior courts under the national authority, to reach all cases fit for the national jurisdiction, which either constitutionally, or conveniently, could not be of original cognizance in the Supreme Court; or to confide jurisdiction of the same cases to the state courts, with a right of appeal to the Supreme Court. To the latter course solid objections were thought to apply, which rendered it ineligible and unsatisfactory. In the first place, the judges of the state courts would be wholly irresponsible to the national government for their conduct in the administration of national justice; so, that the national government would, or might be, wholly dependent upon the good will, or sound discretion of the states, in regard to the efficiency, promptitude, and ability, with which the judicial authority of the nation was administered. In the next place, the prevalency of a local, or sectional spirit might be found to disqualify the state tribunals for a suitable discharge of national judicial functions; and the very modes of appointment of some of the state judges might render them improper channels of the judicial authority of the Union. State judges, holding their offices during pleasure, or from year to year, or for other short periods, would, or at least might, be too little independent to be relied upon for an inflexible execution of the national laws. What could be done, where the state itself should happen to be in hostility to the national government, as might well be presumed occasionally to be the case, from local interests, party spirit, or peculiar prejudices, if the state tribunals were to be the sole depositaries of the judicial powers of the Union, in the ordinary administration of criminal, as well as of civil justice? Besides; if the state tribunals were thus entrusted with the ordinary administration of the criminal and civil justice of the Union, there would be a necessity for leaving the door of appeal as widely open, as possible. In proportion to the grounds of confidence in, or distrust of the subordinate tribunals, ought to be the facility or difficulty of appeals. An unrestrained course of appeals would be a source of much private, as well as public inconvenience. It would encourage litigation, and lead to the most oppressive expenses. Nor should it be omitted, that this very course of appeals would naturally lead to great jealousies, irritations, and collisions between the state courts and the Supreme Court, not only from differences of opinions, but from that pride of character, and consciousness of independence, which would be felt by state judges, possessing the confidence of their own state, and irresponsible to the Union.

§ 1584. In considering the first clause of the third section, declaring, that "the judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts, as the congress may from time to time ordain and establish," we are naturally led to the inquiry, whether congress possess any discretion, as to the creation of a Supreme Court and inferior courts, in whom the constitutional jurisdiction is to be vested. This was at one time matter of much discussion; and is vital to the existence of the judicial department. If congress possess any discretion on this subject, it is obvious, that the judiciary, as a coordinate department of the government, may, at the will of congress, be annihilated, or stripped of all its important jurisdiction; for, if the discretion exists, no one can say in what manner, or at what time, or under what circumstances it may, or ought to be exercised. The whole argument, upon which such an interpretation has been attempted to be maintained, is, that the language of the constitution, "shall be vested," is not imperative, but simply indicates the future tense. This interpretation has been overruled by the Supreme Court, upon solemn deliberation.

. . . . .

§ 1591. The constitution has wisely established, that there shall be one Supreme Court, with a view to uniformity of decision in all cases whatsoever, belonging to the judicial department, whether they arise at the common law or in equity, or within the admiralty and prize jurisdiction; whether they respect the doctrines of mere municipal law, or constitutional law, or the law of nations. It is obvious, that, if there were independent supreme courts of common law, of equity, and of admiralty, a diversity of judgment might, and almost necessarily would spring up, not only, as to the limits of the jurisdiction of each tribunal; but as to the fundamental doctrines of municipal, constitutional, and public law. The effect of this diversity would be, that a different rule would, or might be promulgated on the most interesting subjects by the several tribunals; and thus the citizens be involved in endless doubts, not only as to their private rights, but as to their public duties. The constitution itself would or might speak a different language according to the tribunal, which was called upon to interpret it; and thus interminable disputes embarrass the administration of justice throughout the whole country. But the same reason did not apply to the inferior tribunals. These were, therefore, left entirely to the discretion of congress, as to their number, their jurisdiction, and their powers. Experience might, and probably would, show good grounds for varying and modifying them from time to time. It would not only have been unwise, but exceedingly inconvenient, to have fixed the arrangement of these courts in the constitution itself; since congress would have been disabled thereby from adapting them from time to time to the exigencies of the country. But, whatever may be the extent, to which the power of congress reaches, as to the establishment of inferior tribunals, it is clear from what has been already stated, that all the jurisdiction contemplated by the constitution must be vested in some of its courts, either in an original, or an appellate form.

. . . . .

§ 1593. The mode of appointment of the judges has necessarily come under review, in the examination of the structure and powers of the executive department. The president is expressly authorized, by and with the consent of the senate, to appoint the judges of the Supreme Court. The appointment of the judges of the inferior courts, is not expressly provided for; but has either been left to the discretion of congress, or silently belongs to the president, under the clause of the constitution authorizing him to appoint "all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for." In the convention, a proposition at first prevailed, for the appointment of the judges of the Supreme Court by the senate, by a decided majority. At a later period, however, upon the report of a committee, the appointment of the judges of the Supreme Court, was given to the president, subject to the advice and consent of the senate, by a unanimous vote. The reasons for the change, were doubtless the same as those, which led to the vesting of other high appointments in the executive department.

. . . . .

§ 1601. These remarks will derive additional strength and confirmation, from a nearer survey of the judicial branch of foreign governments, as well as of the several states composing the Union. In England, the king is considered, as the fountain of justice; not indeed as the author, but as the distributer of it; and he possesses the exclusive prerogative of erecting courts of judicature, and appointing the judges. Indeed, in early times, the kings of England often in person heard and decided causes between party and party. But as the constitution of government became more settled, the whole judicial power was delegated to the judges of the several courts of justice; and any attempt, on the part of the king, now to exercise it in person, would be deemed an usurpation. Anciently, the English judges held their offices according to the tenure of their commissions, as prescribed by the crown, which was generally during the pleasure of the crown, as is the tenure of office of the Lord Chancellor, the judges of the courts of admiralty, and others, down to the present day. In the time of Lord Coke, the Barons of the Exchequer held their offices during good behaviour, while the judges of the other courts of common law held them only during pleasure. And it has been said, that, at the time of the restoration of Charles the Second, the commissions of the judges were during good behaviour. Still, however, it was at the pleasure of the crown, to prescribe what tenure of office it might choose, until after the revolution of 1688; and there can be no doubt, that a monarch so profligate as Charles the Second, would avail himself of the prerogative, as often as it suited his political, or other objects.

§ 1602. It is certain, that this power of the crown must have produced an influence upon the administration, dangerous to private rights, and subversive of the public liberties of the subjects. In political accusations, in an especial manner, it must often have produced the most disgraceful compliances with the wishes of the crown; and the most humiliating surrenders of the rights of the accused. The Statute of 13 Will. 3, ch. 2, provided, that the commissions of the judges of the courts of common law should not be as formerly durante bene placito, but should be quam diu bene se gesserint, and their salaries be ascertained, and established. They were made removeable, however, by the king, upon the address of both houses of parliament; and their offices expired by the demise of the king. Afterwards by a statute enacted in the reign of George the Third, at the earnest recommendation of the king, a noble improvement was made in the law, by which the judges are to hold their offices during good behaviour, notwithstanding any demise of the crown; and their full salaries are secured to them, during the continuance of their commissions. Upon that occasion, the monarch made a declaration, worthy of perpetual remembrance, that "he looked upon the independence and uprightness of the judges, as essential to the impartial administration of justice; as one of the best securities of the rights and liberties of his subjects; and as most conducive to the honour of the crown." Indeed, since the independence of the judges has been secured by this permanent duration of office, the administration of justice has, with a single exception, flowed on in England, with an uninterrupted, and pure, and unstained current. It is due to the enlightened tribunals of that nation to declare, that their learning, integrity, and impartiality, have commanded the reverence and respect, as well of America, as Europe. The judges of the old parliaments of France (the judicial tribunals of that country) were, before the revolution, appointed by the crown; but they held their offices for life; and this tenure of office gave them substantial independence. Appointed by the monarch, they were considered as nearly out of his power. The most determined exertions of that authority against them only showed their radical independence. They composed permanent bodies politic, constituted to resist arbitrary innovation; and from that corporate constitution, and from most of their powers they were well calculated to afford both certainty and stability to the laws. They had been a safe asylum to secure their laws, in all the revolutions of human opinion. They had saved that sacred deposit of the country during the reigns of arbitrary princes, and the struggles of arbitrary factions. They kept alive the memory and record of the constitution. They were the great security to private property, which might be said (when personal liberty had no existence,) to be as well guarded in France, as in any other country.

§ 1603. The importance of a permanent tenure of office, to secure the independence, integrity, and impartiality of judges, was early understood in France. Louis the Eleventh, in 1467, made a memorable declaration, that the judges ought not to be deposed, or deprived of their offices, but for a forfeiture previously adjudged, and judicially declared by a competent tribunal. The same declaration was often confirmed by his successors; and after the first excesses of the French revolution were passed, the same principle obtained a public sanction. And it has now become incorporated, as a fundamental principle, into the present charter of France, that the judges appointed by the crown shall be irremoveable. Other European nations have followed the same example; and it is highly probable, that as the principles of free governments prevail, the necessity of thus establishing the independence of the judiciary will be generally felt, and firmly provided for.

§ 1604. It has sometimes been suggested, that, though in monarchial governments the independence of the judiciary is essential, to guard the rights of the subjects from the injustice and oppression of the crown; yet that the same reasons do not apply to a republic, where the popular will is sufficiently known, and ought always to be obeyed. A little consideration of the subject will satisfy us, that, so far from this being true, the reasons in favour of the independence of the judiciary apply with augmented force to republics; and especially to such as possess a written constitution with defined powers, and limited rights.

§ 1605. In the first place, factions and parties are quite as common, and quite as violent in republics, as in monarchies; and the same safeguards are as indispensable in the one, as in the other, against the encroachments of party spirit, and the tyranny of factions. Laws, however wholesome or necessary, are frequently the objects of temporary aversion, and popular odium, and sometimes of popular resistance. Nothing is more facile in republics, than for demagogues, under artful pretences, to stir up combinations against the regular exercise of authority. Their selfish purposes are too often interrupted by the firmness and independence of upright magistrates, not to make them at all times hostile to a power, which rebukes, and an impartiality, which condemns them. The judiciary, as the weakest point in the constitution, on which to make an attack, is therefore, constantly that, to which they direct their assaults; and a triumph here, aided by any momentary popular encouragement, achieves a lasting victory over the constitution itself. Hence, in republics, those, who are to profit by public commotions, or the prevalence of faction, are always the enemies of a regular and independent administration of justice. They spread all sorts of delusion, in order to mislead the public mind, and excite the public prejudices. They know full well, that, without the aid of the people, their schemes must prove abortive; and they, therefore, employ every art to undermine the public confidence, and to make the people the instruments of subverting their own rights and liberties.

§ 1606. It is obvious, that, under such circumstances, if the tenure of office of the judges is not permanent, they will soon be rendered odious, not because they do wrong; but because they refuse to do wrong; and they will be made to give way to others, who shall become more pliant tools of the leading demagogues of the day. There can be no security for the minority in a free government, except through the judicial department. In a monarchy, the sympathies of the people are naturally enlisted against the meditated oppressions of their ruler; and they screen his victims from his vengeance. His is the cause of one against the community. But, in free governments, where the majority, who obtain power for the moment, are supposed to represent the will of the people, persecution, especially of a political nature, becomes the cause of the community against one. It is the more violent and unrelenting, because it is deemed indispensable to attain power, or to enjoy the fruits of victory. In free governments, therefore, the independence of the judiciary becomes far more important to the security of the rights of the citizens, than in a monarchy; since it is the only barrier against the oppressions of a dominant faction, armed for the moment with power, and abusing the influence, acquired under accidental excitements, to overthrow the institutions and liberties, which have been the deliberate choice of the people.

§ 1607. In the next place, the independence of the judiciary is indispensable to secure the people against the intentional, as well as unintentional, usurpations of the executive and legislative departments. It has been observed with great sagacity, that power is perpetually stealing from the many to the few; and the tendency of the legislative department to absorb all the other powers of the government has always been dwelt upon by statesmen and patriots, as a general truth, confirmed by all human experience. If the judges are appointed at short intervals, either by the legislative, or the executive department, they will naturally, and, indeed, almost necessarily, become mere dependents upon the appointing power. If they have any desire to obtain, or to hold office, they will at all times evince a desire to follow, and obey the will of the predominant power in the state. Justice will be administered with a faultering and feeble hand. It will secure nothing, but its own place, and the approbation of those, who value, because they control it. It will decree, what best suits the opinions of the day; and it will forget, that the precepts of the law rest on eternal foundations. The rulers and the citizens will not stand upon an equal ground in litigations. The favourites of the day will overawe by their power, or seduce by their influence; and thus, the fundamental maxim of a republic, that it is a government of laws, and not of men, will be silently disproved, or openly abandoned.

§ 1608. In the next place, these considerations acquire (as has been already seen) still more cogency and force, when applied to questions of constitutional law. In monarchies, the only practical resistance, which the judiciary can present, is to the usurpations of a single department of the government, unaided, and acting for itself. But, if the executive and legislative departments are combined in any course of measures, obedience to their will becomes a duty, as well as a necessity. Thus, even in the free government of Great Britain, an act of parliament, combining, as it does, the will of the crown, and of the legislature, is absolute and omnipotent. It cannot be lawfully resisted, or disobeyed. The judiciary is bound to carry it into effect at every hazard, even though it should subvert private rights and public liberty. But it is far otherwise in a republic, like our own, with a limited constitution, prescribing at once the powers of the rulers, and the rights of the citizens. This very circumstance would seem conclusively to show, that the independence of the judiciary is absolutely indispensable to preserve the balance of such a constitution. In no other way can there be any practical restraint upon the acts of the government, or any practical enforcement of the rights of the citizens. This subject has been already examined very much at large, and needs only to be touched in this place. No man can deny the necessity of a judiciary to interpret the constitution and laws, and to preserve the citizens against oppression and usurpation in civil and criminal prosecutions. Does it not follow, that, to enable the judiciary to fulfil its functions, it is indispensable, that the judges should not hold their offices at the mere pleasure of those, whose acts they are to check, and, if need be, to declare void? Can it be supposed for a moment, that men holding their offices for the short period of two, or four, or even six years, will be generally found firm enough to resist the will of those, who appoint them, and may remove them?

§ 1609. The argument of those, who contend for a short period of office of the judges, is founded upon the necessity of a conformity to the will of the people. But the argument proceeds upon a fallacy, in supposing, that the will of the rulers, and the will of the people are the same. Now, they not only may be, but often actually are, in direct variance to each other. No man in a republican government can doubt, that the will of the people is, and ought to be, supreme. But it is the deliberate will of the people, evinced by their solemn acts, and not the momentary ebullitions of those, who act for the majority, for a day, or a month, or a year. The constitution is the will, the deliberate will, of the people. They have declared under what circumstances, and in what manner it shall be amended, and altered; and until a change is effected in the manner prescribed, it is declared, that it shall be the supreme law of the land, to which all persons, rulers, as well as citizens, must bow in obedience. When it is constitutionally altered, then and not until then, are the judges at liberty to disregard its original injunctions. When, therefore, the argument is pressed, that the judges ought to be subject to the will of the people, no one doubts the propriety of the doctrine in its true and legitimate sense.

§ 1610. But those, who press the argument, use it in a far broader sense. In their view, the will of the people, as exhibited in the choice of the rulers, is to be followed. If the rulers interpret the constitution differently from the judges, the former are to be obeyed, because they represent the opinions of the people; and therefore, the judges ought to be removable, or appointed for a short period, so as to become subject to the will of the people, as expressed by and through their rulers. But, is it not at once seen, that this is in fact subverting the constitution? Would it not make the constitution an instrument of flexible and changeable interpretation, and not a settled form of government with fixed limitations? Would it not become, instead of a supreme law for ourselves and our posterity, a mere oracle of the powers of the rulers of the day, to which implicit homage is to be paid, and speaking at different times the most opposite commands, and in the most ambiguous voices? In short, is not this an attempt to erect, behind the constitution, a power unknown, and unprovided for by the constitution, and greater than itself? What become of the limitations of the constitution, if the will of the people, thus inofficially promulgated, forms, for the time being, the supreme law, and the supreme exposition of the law? If the constitution defines the powers of the government, and points out the mode of changing them; and yet, the instrument is to expand in the hands of one set of rulers, and to contract in those of another, where is the standard? If the will of the people is to govern in the construction of the powers of the constitution, and that will is to be gathered at every successive election at the polls, and not from their deliberate judgment, and solemn acts in ratifying the constitution, or in amending it, what certainty can there be in those powers? If the constitution is to be expounded, not by its written text, but by the opinions of the rulers for the time being, whose opinions are to prevail, the first, or the last? When, therefore, it is said, that the judges ought to be subjected to the will of the people, and to conform to their interpretation of the constitution, the practical meaning must be, that they should be subjected to the control of the representatives of the people in the executive and legislative departments, and should interpret the constitution, as the latter may, from time to time, deem correct.

§ 1611. But it is obvious, that elections can rarely, if ever, furnish any sufficient proofs, what is deliberately the will of the people, as to any constitutional or legal doctrines. Representatives and rulers must be ordinarily chosen for very different purposes; and, in many instances, their opinions upon constitutional questions must be unknown to their constituents. The only means known to the constitution, by which to ascertain the will of the people upon a constitutional question, is in the shape of an affirmative or negative proposition by way of amendment, offered for their adoption in the mode prescribed by the constitution. The elections in one year may bring one party into power; and in the next year their opponents, embracing opposite doctrines, may succeed; and so alternate success and defeat may perpetually recur in the same districts, and in the same, or different states.

§ 1612. Surely it will not be pretended, that any constitution, adapted to the American people, could ever contemplate the executive and legislative departments of the government, as the ultimate depositaries of the power to interpret the constitution; or as the ultimate representatives of the will of the people, to change it at pleasure. If, then, the judges were appointed for two, or four, or six years, instead of during good behaviour, the only security, which the people would have for a due administration of public justice, and a firm support of the constitution, would be, that being dependent upon the executive for their appointment during their brief period of office, they might, and would represent more fully, for the time being, the constitutional opinion of each successive executive; and thus carry into effect his system of government. Would this be more wise, or more safe, more for the permanence of the constitution, or the preservation of the liberties of the people, than the present system? Would the judiciary, then, be, in fact, an independent co-ordinate department? Would it protect the people against an ambitious or corrupt executive; or restrain the legislature from acts of unconstitutional authority?

§ 1613. The truth is, that, even with the most secure tenure of office, during good behaviour, the danger is not, that the judges will be too firm in resisting public opinion, and in defence of private rights or public liberties; but, that they will be too ready to yield themselves to the passions, and politics, and prejudices of the day. In a monarchy, the judges, in the performance of their duties with uprightness and impartiality, will always have the support of some of the departments of the government, or at least of the people. In republics, they may sometimes find the other departments combined in hostility against the judicial; and even the people, for a while, under the influence of party spirit and turbulent factions, ready to abandon them to their fate. Few men possess the firmness to resist the torrent of popular opinion; or are content to sacrifice present ease and public favour, in order to earn the slow rewards of a conscientious discharge of duty; the sure, but distant, gratitude of the people; and the severe, but enlightened, award of posterity.

§ 1614. If passing from general reasoning, an appeal is made to the lessons of experience, there is every thing to convince us, that the judicial department is safe to a republic, with the tenure of office during good behaviour; and that justice will ordinarily be best administered, where there is most independence. Of the state constitutions, five only out of twenty-four have provided for any other tenure of office, than during good behaviour; and those adopted by the new states admitted into the Union, since the formation of the national government, have, with two or three exceptions only, embraced the same permanent tenure of office. No one can hesitate to declare, that in the states, where the judges hold their offices during good behaviour, justice is administered with wisdom, moderation, and firmness; and that the public confidence has reposed upon the judicial department, in the most critical times, with unabated respect. If the same can be said in regard to other states, where the judges enjoy a less permanent tenure of office, it will not answer the reasoning, unless it can also be shown, that the judges have never been removed for political causes, wholly distinct from their own merit; and yet have often deliberately placed themselves in opposition to the popular opinion.

§ 1615. The considerations above stated lead to the conclusion, that in republics there are, in reality, stronger reasons for an independent tenure of office by the judges, a tenure during good behaviour, than in a monarchy. Indeed, a republic with a limited constitution, and yet without a judiciary sufficiently independent to check usurpation, to protect public liberty, and to enforce private rights, would be as visionary and absurd, as a society organized without any restraints of law. It would become a democracy with unlimited powers, exercising through its rulers a universal despotic sovereignty. The very theory of a balanced republic of restricted powers presupposes some organized means to control, and resist, any excesses of authority. The people may, if they please, submit all power to their rulers for the time being; but, then, the government should receive its true appellation and character. It would be a government of tyrants, elective, it is true, but still tyrants; and it would become the more fierce, vindictive, and sanguinary, because it would perpetually generate factions in its own bosom, who could succeed only by the ruin of their enemies. It would be alternately characterized, as a reign of terror, and a reign of imbecillity. It would be as corrupt, as it would be dangerous. It would form another model of that profligate and bloody democracy, which, at one time, in the French revolution, darkened by its deeds the fortunes of France, and left to mankind the appalling lesson, that virtue, and religion, genius, and learning, the authority of wisdom, and the appeals of innocence, are unheard and unfelt in the frenzy of popular excitement; and, that the worst crimes may be sanctioned, and the most desolating principles inculcated, under the banners, and in the name of liberty. In human governments, there are but two controlling powers; the power of arms, and the power of laws. If the latter are not enforced by a judiciary above all fear, and above all reproach, the former must prevail; and thus lead to the triumph of military over civil institutions. The framers of the constitution, with profound wisdom, laid the corner stone of our national republic in the permanent independence of the judicial establishment. Upon this point their vote was unanimous. They adopted the results of an enlightened experience. They were not seduced by the dreams of human perfection into the belief, that all power might be safely left to the unchecked operation of the private ambition, or personal virtue of rulers. Nor, on the other hand, were they so lost to a just estimate of human concerns, as not to feel, that confidence must be reposed somewhere; if either efficiency, or safety are to be consulted in the plan of government. Having provided amply for the legislative and executive authorities, they established a balance-wheel, which, by its independent structure, should adjust the irregularities, and check the excesses of the occasional movements of the system.

§ 1616. In the convention a proposition was offered to make the judges removeable by the president, upon the application of the senate and house of representatives; but it received the support of a single state only.

§ 1617. This proposition doubtless owed its origin to the clause in the act of parliament, (13 Will. 3 ch. 2,) making it lawful for the king to remove the judges on the address of both houses of parliament, notwithstanding the tenure of their offices during good behaviour, established by the same act. But a moment's reflection will teach us, that there is no just analogy in the cases. The object of the act of parliament was to secure the judges from removal at the mere pleasure of the crown; but not to render them independent of the action of parliament. By the theory of the British constitution, every act of parliament is supreme and omnipotent. It may change the succession to the crown; and even the very fundamentals of the constitution. It would have been absurd, therefore, to have exempted the judges alone from the general jurisdiction of this supreme authority in the realm. The clause was not introduced into the act, for the purpose of conferring the power on parliament, for it could not be taken away, or restricted; but simply to recognize it, as a qualification of the tenure of office; so that the judges should have no right to complain of any breach of an implied contract with them, and the crown should not be deprived of the means to remove an unfit judge, whenever parliament should in their discretion signify their assent. Besides; in England the judges are not, and cannot be, called upon to decide any constitutional questions; and therefore there was no necessity to place them, and indeed there would have been an impropriety in placing them, even if it had been possible, (which it clearly was not) in a situation, in which they would not have been under the control of parliament.

§ 1618. Far different is the situation of the people of the United States. They have chosen to establish a constitution of government, with limited powers and prerogatives, over which neither the executive, nor the legislature, have any power, either of alteration or control. It is to all the departments equally a supreme, fundamental, unchangeable law, which all must obey, and none are at liberty to disregard. The main security, relied on to check any irregular, or unconstitutional measure, either of the executive, or the legislative department, was (as we have seen) the judiciary. To have made the judges, therefore, removable, at the pleasure of the president and congress, would have been a virtual surrender to them of the custody and appointment of the guardians of the constitution. It would have been placing the keys of the citadel in the possession of those, against whose assaults the people were most strenuously endeavouring to guard themselves. It would be holding out a temptation to the president and congress, whenever they were resisted in any of their measures, to secure a perfect irresponsibility by removing those judges from office, who should dare to oppose their will. In short, in every violent political commotion or change, the judges would be removed from office, exactly as the lord chancellor in England now is, in order, that a perfect harmony might be established between the operations of all the departments of government. Such a power would have been a signal proof of a solicitude to erect defences round the constitution, for the sole purpose of surrendering them into the possession of those, whose acts they were intended to guard against. Under such circumstances, it might well have been asked, where could resort be had to redress grievances, or to overthrow usurpations? Quis custodiet custodes?

§ 1619. A proposition of a more imposing nature was to authorize a removal of judges for inability to discharge the duties of their offices. But all considerate persons will readily perceive, that such a provision would either not be practised upon, or would be more liable to abuse, than calculated to answer any good purpose. The mensuration of the faculties of the mind has no place in the catalogue of any known art or science. An attempt to fix the boundary between the region of ability and inability would much oftener give rise to personal, or party attachments and hostilities, than advance the interests of justice, or the public good. And instances of absolute imbecility would be too rare to justify the introduction of so dangerous a provision.

§ 1620. In order to avoid investigations of this sort, which must for ever be vague and unsatisfactory, some persons have been disposed to think, that a limitation of age should be assumed as a criterion of inability; so that there should be a constitutional removal from office, when the judge should attain a certain age. Some of the state constitutions have adopted such a limitation. Thus, in New-York, sixty years of age is a disqualification for the office of judge; and in some other states the period is prolonged to seventy. The value of these provisions has never, as yet, been satisfactorily established by the experience of any state. That they have worked mischievously in some cases is matter of public notoriety. . . .

§ 1621. It is observable, that the constitution has declared, that the judges of the inferior courts, as well as of the Supreme Court, of the United States, shall hold their offices during good behaviour. In this respect there is a marked contrast between the English government and our own. In England the tenure is exclusively confined to the judges of the superior courts, and does not (as we have already seen) even embrace all of these. In fact, a great portion of all the civil and criminal business of the whole kingdom is performed by persons delegated, pro hac vice, for this purpose under commissions issued periodically for a single circuit. It is true, that it is, and for a long period has been, ordinarily administered by the judges of the courts of King's Bench, Common Pleas, and Exchequer; but it is not so merely virtute officii, but under special commissions investing them from time to time with this authority in conjunction with other persons named in the commission. Such are the commissions of oyer and terminer, of assize, of gaol delivery, and of nisi prius, under which all civil and criminal trials of matters of fact are had at the circuits, and in the metropolis. By the constitution of the United States all criminal and civil jurisdiction must be exclusively confided to judges holding their office during good behaviour; and though congress may from time to time distribute the jurisdiction among such inferior courts, as it may create from time to time, and withdraw it at their pleasure, it is not competent for them to confer it upon temporary judges, or to confide it by special commission. Even if the English system be well adapted to the wants of the nation, and secure a wise and beneficent administration of justice in the realm, as it doubtless does; still it is obvious, that, in our popular government, it would be quite too great a power, to trust the whole administration of civil and criminal justice to commissioners, appointed at the pleasure of the president. To the constitution of the United States, and to those, who enjoy its advantages, no judges are known, but such, as hold their offices during good behaviour.

. . . . .

§ 1627. It would be a matter of general congratulation, if this language had been completely borne out by the perusal of our juridical annals. But, unfortunately, a measure was adopted in 1802 under the auspices of president Jefferson, which, if its constitutionality can be successfully vindicated, prostrates in the dust the independence of all inferior judges, both as to the tenure of their office, and their compensation for services, and leaves the constitution a miserable and vain delusion. In the year 1801, congress passed an act reorganizing the judiciary, and authorizing the appointment of sixteen new judges, with suitable salaries, to hold the circuit courts of the United States, in the different circuits created by the act. Under this act the circuit judges received their appointments, and performed the duties of their offices, until the year 1802, when the courts, established by the act, were abolished by a general repeal of it by congress, without in the slightest manner providing for the payment of the salaries of the judges, or for any continuation of their offices. The result of this act, therefore, is (so far as it is a precedent,) that, notwithstanding the constitutional tenure of office of the judges of the inferior courts is during good behaviour, congress may, at any time, by a mere act of legislation, deprive them of their offices at pleasure, and with it take away their whole title to their salaries. How this can be reconciled with the terms, or the intent of the constitution, is more, than any ingenuity of argument has ever, as yet, been able to demonstrate. The system fell, because it was unpopular with those, who were then in possession of power; and the victims have hitherto remained without any indemnity from the justice of the government.

. . . . .

§ 1629. It is almost unnecessary to add, that, although the constitution has, with so sedulous a care, endeavoured to guard the judicial department from the overwhelming influence or power of the other co-ordinate departments of the government, it has not conferred upon them any inviolability, or irresponsibility for an abuse of their authority. On the contrary for any corrupt violation or omission of the high trusts confided to the judges, they are liable to be impeached, (as we have already seen,) and upon conviction removed from office. Thus, on the one hand, a pure and independent administration of public justice is amply provided for; and, on the other hand, an urgent responsibility secured for fidelity to the people.

§ 1630. The judges of the inferior courts, spoken of in the constitution, do not include the judges of courts appointed in the territories of the United States under the authority, given to congress, to regulate the territories of the United States. The courts of the territories are not constitutional courts, in which the judicial power conferred by the constitution on the general government, can be deposited. They are legislative courts, created in virtue of the general sovereignty, which exists in the national government over its territories. The jurisdiction, with which they are invested, is not a part of the judicial power, which is defined in the third article of the constitution; but arises from the same general sovereignty. In legislating for them, congress exercises the combined powers of the general, and of a state government. Congress may, therefore, rightfully limit the tenure of office of the judges of the territorial courts, as well as their jurisdiction; and it has been accordingly limited to a short period of years.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 4, Article 3, Section 1, Document 38
The University of Chicago Press

Story, Joseph. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. 3 vols. Boston, 1833.

Easy to print version.