Our founders understood that judges who are able to apply the law freely and fairly are essential to the rule of law. The Constitution guarantees our rights on paper, but this would mean nothing without independent courts to protect them.
In our unique judicial system, courts are protected from the influence of other branches of government, as well as shifting popular opinion. This allows the judiciary to make decisions based on what is right under the law, without political or personal consequences.
The federal judiciary is defined and explained in Article III of the U.S. Constitution. Click below to read each section of Article III, with an explanation.
Article III of the U.S. Constitution
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. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.
Section 1 Explanation:
The power to interpret the law of the United States will be held by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the lower federal courts.
Inferior courts will be created by Congress from “time to time.” The Constitution itself created only the Supreme Court, but allowed Congress to create other, inferior (lower) courts over time. Thus as the case load of the Supreme Court grew, Congress was able to create the lower federal courts.
Federal judges will hold office “during good behavior” and they shall receive “compensation” for their services.
- Once they are appointed, federal judges remain in office during “good behavior.” In effect, most federal judges serve a life term (since the Constitution does not state a time limit or number of years).
- Once appointed, their salaries cannot be “diminished” or decreased. This protects the judges from being manipulated through their salary.
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 Authority;–to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;–to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;–to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;–to Controversies between two or more States;– between a State and Citizens of another State,–between Citizens of different States,–between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.
Section 2 Explanation:
Section 2 of Article III describes the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Jurisdiction is the power of a court to hear a case, so this section tells us what kinds of cases the Supreme Court and other federal courts will hear.
- All cases that arise under the Constitution, the laws of the United States or its treaties.
- All cases that affect American Ambassadors, public officials, and public consuls.
- All cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction (cases that involve national waters).
- All cases in which the United States is a party (when a state, a citizen or a foreign power sues the national government).
- All cases that involve one or more states, or the citizens of different states.
- All cases between citizens of the same state who are claiming land under grants from other states.
- Underlined portions were changed by the 11th Amendment, which states that the judicial power of the United States does not allow a state to be sued by citizens of another state, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state.
Section 2 Continued –
In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.
Section 2 also notes that the Supreme Court will have original jurisdiction in any case dealing with or affecting an Ambassador, Public Minister or Consul, or in which a state is a party.
- Original jurisdiction is the power of a court to hear a case first. This means that, in any case dealing with these groups of public servants, the Supreme Court must hear the case first, and no lower court can do so.
- The number of original jurisdiction cases heard by the United States Supreme Court is very low; less than 1% of all their cases.
In addition to these original jurisdiction cases, the Supreme Court will have appellate jurisdiction in all other cases.
- Appellate jurisdiction is the power to hear a case AFTER a lower court has already decided the case. That is what it means to hear the case on appeal.
- The vast majority cases heard by the United States Supreme Court today are appellate cases.
- The Supreme Court is the “court of last resort” that is, the final court in which a citizen, state or other entity can have their case heard.
- The Supreme Court is the only federal court to have BOTH original and appellate jurisdiction.
Section 2 Continued –
The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.
- This final portion of section 2 tells us that in the trial of all crimes, except impeachment, the accused has a right to a trial by jury. These trials are held in the state where the crime is committed.
- Impeachment is the process described in the Constitution by which high officers of the U.S. government may be accused, tried, and removed from office for misconduct; the House of Representatives is responsible for the inquiry and formal accusation, and the Senate is responsible for the trial.
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.
The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.
Section 3 Explanation:
Section 3 of Article III deals with the crime of treason, first by giving us a definition of the crime, then by telling us how the crime will be tried.
- Treason is defined in the Constitution as levying war against the United States, or giving aid to our enemies.
- This is the only crime actually defined in the Constitution. Why? The founders were afraid that people could be charged with treason, when they were really just engaging in dissent. Part of living in a democracy is the ability we all have to disagree with our government. If simply speaking out against the government were treason, then the government could quash all dissent, and we would not have a free country. By defining treason in the Constitution, the founders made sure that those accused of treason had to do more than simply say things our government or leaders didn’t like. To be guilty of treason, they had to take actual action (make war against our government or directly help our enemies). This protects our freedom of speech from being limited.
- Section 3 tells us that, to be convicted of treason, there must be two witnesses to the same overt act, or that the person committing treason must confess in open court.
- Congress has the power to determine the punishment for treason, which ranges from five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, up to life in prison or death.