The New International Encyclopædia/Supreme Court of the United States, The< The New International Encyclopædia
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES, The. The Supreme Court of the United States is the head of the national judiciary. In our system of government there are three coördinate departments—executive, legislative, and judicial. The latter is the last named in the national Constitution, was the last brought into being, but is by no means the least important. The existence of the Supreme Court is authorized by the Constitution. Section 1 of Article III. provides 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.” The Supreme Court is thus a constitutional court, while the other courts of the United States are statutory. Though the Constitution provides for a Supreme Court, it leaves its organization and membership for Congressional supervision. The first act in respect thereto was passed at the first session of the United States Congress, approved by Washington on September 24, 1789, and directed that the court should consist of a Chief Justice and five associate justices, any four of whom should make a quorum. This act not only made provision for the Supreme Court, but created the inferior courts of the United States and organized its entire judicial system. It was drafted by Oliver Ellsworth, afterwards a Chief Justice of the United States. It has remained in its main features unchanged, and one of Ellsworth's admirers has declared that the Federal judicial system, “the whole edifice, organization, jurisdiction, and process, was built by him as it now stands.”
The Constitution in Section 2 of Article III. declares that “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.” And also that “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.” The original jurisdiction, being conferred by the Constitution, cannot be taken away by Congress, although that body may prescribe the procedure by which that jurisdiction is to be exercised; but in respect to the appellate jurisdiction both the procedure and its extent are matters of Congressional determination, and Congress has from time to time made changes in each.
The appellate jurisdiction may be separated into two divisions: one over State courts; the other over the inferior Federal courts. With respect to the former it reviews the final judgment rendered in any case by the highest court of the State to which the case under State practice can be carried, and this irrespective of the amount in controversy. With respect to the latter, up to 1891 it had, speaking generally, jurisdiction to review the proceedings in any case which had passed to final judgment in such inferior courts, with a limitation in some classes of cases to a certain amount in controversy. By the act of that year (1891) courts of appeal were established, one in each circuit, and were given final jurisdiction in certain cases, such as revenue, admiralty, patent cases, etc. But the Supreme Court may still by certiorari, if it sees fit, bring any of these cases from a court of appeals before it for review. This act did away with the limitation as to the amount in controversy requisite for review by the Supreme Court. In addition the Supreme Court is given power to issue writs of prohibition and all other writs which may be necessary for the exercise of its jurisdiction and agreeable to the principles and usages of law. So that it may be said that the Supreme Court has complete supervision and control over all the inferior courts of the United States.
The full significance of the Supreme Court as a factor in the new government was not at first appreciated by all; yet there were some who realized its great importance, like Washington, who, with prophetic visions of what the future was to disclose, wrote, in a letter inclosing the commission of James Wilson, one of the first associate justices: “Considering the judicial system as the chief pillar upon which our national government must rest, I have thought it my duty to nominate for the high offices in that department such men as I conceived would give dignity and lustre to our national character.” Early there arose two parties in this country—one believing that the new government was but a continuance of the old confederacy, in effect a league of States, the States remaining the dominant powers, and the national Government serving only as a limited agency for the transaction of a few matters of general importance; the other that a new nation was created, supreme in control, possessing all the power of a nation, the States being simply parts of the one new nation. By the one party, the provisions of the Constitution were strictly construed; no power was vested in the national Government, except that which was expressly named. The other believed that the Constitution was to be so construed as to give vigor and efficiency to the new nation. Upon the solution of this question turned the future of the Republic. It was finally answered and settled by the Supreme Court, which has always spoken for the nationality of the United States. A brief reference to some of the leading cases may indicate its action, and the effect thereof on our history. In Chisholm, executor, v. Georgia, 2 Dall. 419, decided February 18, 1793, the court (considering those provisions of the Constitution which extend the judicial power of the United States to controversies “between a State and citizens of another State,” and give to the Supreme Court original jurisdiction of controversies to which a State is a party) held that an action might be maintained against a State by a citizen of another State. The national idea was not yet strong, and the proposition that a sovereign State could at the instance of an individual and without its consent be brought to the bar of a court and compelled to defend an action against it startled many. As a consequence the Eleventh Amendment was adopted, which in effect forbids an action in the Federal courts against a State by an individual.
John Marshall became Chief Justice in January, 1801, and remained in office for thirty-four years. He is often aptly called ‘the great Chief Justice.’ During his long term many questions of vital interest were considered and determined by the court. It was a great constructive period, and by those decisions which declared the relative powers of the nation and the State was disclosed the full significance of the Constitution as an instrument expressing the creating of a new nation and not a mere article of confederation between separate States. Not merely were these relative powers declared, but the peculiar work and value of the Supreme Court as the tribunal to determine the extent of such relative powers and to pass in judgment upon acts of State and nation were also made apparent. In Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch. 137, decided February 24, 1803, it was held that an act of Congress repugnant to the Constitution was void. True, this was not the first case in which such a judicial opinion had been announced, but Chief Justice Marshall presented the argument so fully and forcibly that since then the question has been at rest, and it is now undoubted that a legislative act repugnant to the Constitution is a nullity. Again, in M’Culloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, the question was presented of the power of Congress to charter a national bank. The Constitution gives in terms no such power, or indeed any power to create corporations, and the advocates of a strict construction contended that in the absence of an express grant of such power Congress could not create a corporation for any purpose. The court, upon the authority of that clause which, following the clauses making express grants to Congress, empowers that body to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers,” held that, as a bank was a proper and convenient agency for carrying on the fiscal affairs of a government, there was power in Congress to create a banking corporation; that the word ‘necessary’ was not to be construed in a strict and narrow sense, but—viewing the Constitution as an organic instrument by which a government was established and which from the very necessities of the case used general terms in giving to that government the power essential for its being—to be taken broadly and liberally, and said in a phrase which has become axiomatic in constitutional law: “Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the Constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, are constitutional.”
This decision laid the foundation of what is known as the doctrine of implied powers, the significance of which may be better appreciated when we recall the fact that under a grant of power stated in these few words “to establish post-offices and post roads” the great postal system of the United States has been built up. At the same term was decided the case of the Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 4 Wheat. 518, in which it was held that the charter of a private corporation granted by a State created a contract whose obligations the State could not impair, because of that provision of the Federal Constitution which forbids a State to pass any law “impairing the obligation of contracts.” (See Dartmouth College Case.) It is true the full effect of that decision has been avoided by constitutional enactments in the several States, reserving the power of repeal, alteration, and amendment of all corporate grants. Yet, notwithstanding these limitations, that decision stands as the great bulwark of the sanctity of contract rights created by the States.
Martin v. Hunter, 1 Wheat. 304, and Cohens v. Virginia, 6 Wheat. 264, the latter decided at the February term, 1821, settled the power of the Supreme Court to review, and if necessary set aside, the proceedings of a State court in a case in which a Federal right was asserted by the defeated party. Thus it is that all rights which are claimed under the Constitution of the United States may finally be adjudicated by the Supreme Court of the United States, and a unity is thereby established which pervades the nation in respect to such rights. Again, in Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. 1, decided in 1824, the supreme power of the Federal Government over the navigable waters of the United States was affirmed. In that case Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamboat, and his associate, Robert R. Livingston, obtained from the State of New York the grant of an exclusive right to navigate with steamboats the waters within the jurisdiction of that State. Gibbons claimed a right under national authority to navigate with his steamboats the same waters, and hence the litigation. The Constitution having granted to Congress the power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several States,” it was held that that power could not be infringed upon by any action of a State and that a State could not interfere with such commerce even when carried upon waters wholly within its own territory. Upon that decision rests that freedom of commerce between the States which, perhaps more than any other thing, has wrought into the minds of the people the great thought of a single controlling nationality. In this connection the case of ‘The Genesee Chief,’ 12 How. 443, decided in 1851, may be noticed. In that case it was held that the English rule that the jurisdiction of admiralty ended with tide waters was inapplicable, and that in this country such jurisdiction, which by the Constitution is vested in the United States courts, extends to all the navigable waters of the Republic. Thus the control of the Great Lakes and all the navigable rivers of the United States, whether within or without the limits of a State, is vested in the national Government. In Osborn v. United States Bank, 9 Wheat. 738, it was held that a State had no power to tax one of the branches of the United States Bank; that the bank was one of the agencies and instrumentalities of the national Government, and as such was removed from the sphere of State taxation. From that decision has sprung the settled rule exempting all the agencies and instrumentalities of the national Government from State taxation except so far as permitted by Congress. This is seen in respect to United States bonds, national banks, etc. Conversely, though at a later date, in The Collector v. Day, 11 Wall. 113, decided December, 1870, it was held that Congress could not impose an income tax on the salaries paid to State officials. By these two decisions neither State nor nation can impair the efficiency of the necessary governmental action of the other.
Chief Justice Marshall was succeeded by Chief Justice Taney. As he and a majority of his associates had belonged to the ‘strict construction school,’ many prophesied a complete reversal of prior rulings, but the court still affirmed the nationality of the United States. Thus in Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company, decided in 1849, 9 How. 647, and 1851, 13 How. 518, the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court was affirmed over a case brought by a State to restrain the obstruction of a navigable river within the limits of other States. In Ableman v. Booth, decided in 1858, 21 How. 506, a prisoner in custody of the United States authorities was held not to be subject to discharge by State process. And in the famous ‘Dred Scott Case,’ decided in 1856, 19 How. 393, the nationality of the United States was asserted, though in a way not satisfactory to the friends of human freedom, in that it decided that the recognition by the Constitution of slave property carried with it the protection of that property in all the territories of the nation.
When the Civil War ended and Chief Justice Taney had been succeeded by Chief Justice Chase a new series of cases arose. Naturally bitter feelings were excited by the war, and stringent laws were passed by Congress and by some of the States against those who had participated in the rebellion. Test oaths were prescribed which prevented ministers and lawyers who had taken part with the South from pursuing their respective professions, but in Cummings v. Missouri, and ex parte Garland, decided in 1866, 4 Wall. 277 and 333, such test oaths were adjudged invalid as ex post facto acts. At the same time, in ex parte Milligan, 4 Wall. 2, it was held that a military tribunal, sitting in Indiana, a State in which there had been no rebellion, had no jurisdiction to punish a citizen, in no way connected with the army, for an offense against the Government. In Texas v. White. 7 Wall. 700, decided in 1868, it was held that States in rebellion did not lose their existence or identity, and in the opinion Chief Justice Chase made the memorable declaration that this was “an indestructible union composed of indestructible States.” Soon after the war the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution was adopted, which prohibited the States from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, and from denying to any one the equal protection of the law. It was claimed by many that this operated to prevent the grant by a State of any special privileges, but in the Slaughter House Cases, 16 Wall. 30 (1872), a charter given by the State of Louisiana, which secured to the corporation a monopoly of the butchering business within certain limits of New Orleans, was held to be valid, and thus the right of each State to determine for itself, in the grant of privileges, that which was best for its citizens, was sustained. In 1890 came Leisy v. Hardin, 135 U. S., 100, in which it was held that the grant by the Federal Constitution to Congress of the power to regulate commerce between the States invalidated the legislation of one State which sought to prevent a citizen of another from selling and shipping liquors into it. In 1895, in the Income Tax Cases, 82 U. S., 429, it was held that the constitutional provision requiring direct taxes to be apportioned among the States according to their population rendered invalid a tax which was not so apportioned on incomes derived from real estate and as the direct product of personal property. And only recently were decided the Insular Cases, 128 U. S., 1, cases arising out of the conquest of Porto Rico and the Philippines, in which was considered the power of Congress to govern territories acquired by war or treaty, and in which was affirmed to the largest extent the national power of the Republic. This list might be greatly increased, but enough have been cited to show the general character of the cases considered and determined by that court in upholding the idea of nationality. It has always strongly upheld the powers given by the Constitution to the nation, and at the same time protected the States in the powers reserved by that instrument to them.
At first the amount of business in the Supreme Court was small; now it is large. In 1801, the first year of Chief Justice Marshall's term, only ten cases were filed; from 1875 to 1880 there were 1953, or an average of about 390 a year. While the act of 1891 diminished the number of cases that could come to the court, yet during the year 1900 401 cases were filed, and during the year 1901 383.
As heretofore stated, the court at first consisted of six members; it never has had at any time over ten, and now has but nine. The following is a list of the Chief Justices and also of the associate justices, as well as the States from which they were appointed: Chief Justices—John Jay, New York; John Rutledge, South Carolina; Oliver Ellsworth, Connecticut; John Marshall, Virginia; Roger B. Taney, Maryland; Salmon P. Chase, Ohio; Morrison R. Waite, Ohio; Melville W. Fuller, Illinois. Associate Justices—William Cushing, Massachusetts; James Wilson, Pennsylvania; John Blair, Virginia; James Iredell, North Carolina; Thomas Johnson, Maryland; William Paterson, New Jersey; Samuel Chase, Maryland; Bushrod Washington, Virginia; Alfred Moore, North Carolina; William Johnson, South Carolina; Brockholst Livingston, New York; Thomas Todd, Kentucky; Joseph Story, Massachusetts; Gabriel Duval, Maryland; Smith Thompson, New York; Robert Trimble, Kentucky; John McLean, Ohio; Henry Baldwin, Pennsylvania; James M. Wayne, Georgia; Philip P. Barbour, Virginia; John Catron, Tennessee; John McKinley, Alabama; Peter V. Daniel, Virginia; Samuel Nelson, New York; Levi Woodbury, New Hampshire; Robert C. Grier, Pennsylvania; Benjamin R. Curtis, Massachusetts; John A. Campbell, Alabama; Nathan Clifford, Maine; Noah H. Swayne, Ohio; Samuel F. Miller, Iowa; David Davis, Illinois; Stephen J. Field, California; William Strong, Pennsylvania; Joseph P. Bradley, New Jersey; Ward Hunt, New York; John M. Harlan, Kentucky; William B. Woods, Georgia; Stanley Matthews, Ohio; Horace Gray, Massachusetts; Samuel Blatchford, New York; Lucius Q. C. Lamar, Mississippi; David J. Brewer, Kansas; Henry B. Brown, Michigan; George Shiras, Jr., Pennsylvania; Howell E. Jackson, Tennessee; Edward D. White, Louisiana; Rufus W. Peckham, New York; Joseph MeKenna, California; Oliver W. Holmes, Massachusetts; William R. Day, Ohio. They hold office for life, and yet up to 1903 the average term of office of the Chief Justices had been 13 5-12 years, and of the associates 15 9-12 years.
That the work of the court has not only developed a national idea, but also has done much to give stability to republican institutions, is now conceded by all. See Constitution of the United States; Court; Federal Government. Consult Curtis, Jurisdiction of the United States Courts.