Current Issue

Volume 95, Number 6

December 2020

Congress’s Article III Power and the Process of Constitutional Change

Christopher Jon Sprigman

Text in Article III of the U.S. Constitution appears to give to Congress authority to make incursions into judicial supremacy, by restricting (or, less neutrally, “stripping”) the jurisdiction of federal courts. Article III gives Congress authority to make “exceptions” to the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction. Article III also gives Congress discretion whether to “ordain and establish” lower federal courts. Congress’s power to create or abolish these courts would seem to include the power to create them but to limit their jurisdiction, and that is how the power has historically been understood.

Is Congress’s power to remove the jurisdiction of federal courts in effect a legislative power to choose the occasions on which federal courts may, and may not, have the final word on the meaning of the Constitution? That is a question on which the Supreme Court has never spoken definitively.

In this Article I argue that Congress, working through the ordinary legislative process, may remove the jurisdiction of federal and even state courts to hear cases involving particular questions of federal law, including cases that raise questions under the Federal Constitution. Understood this way, the implications of Congress’s Article III power are profound. Congress may prescribe, by ordinary legislation, constitutional rules in areas where the meaning of the Constitution is unsettled. Or it may displace otherwise settled constitutional rules by ordinary legislation.

To be clear, Article III does not permit Congress to escape accountability. Rather, Article III gives to Congress the power to choose whether it must answer, in a particular instance, to judges or to voters. Compared with judicial review, the political constraint is, of course, less formal and predictable. But that does not mean that the political constraint is weak. A successful exercise of its Article III power will require a majority in Congress, and, in most instances, a President, who agree both on the substantive policy at issue and on the political viability of overriding the public expectation that Congress should face a judicial check. In such instances, we should welcome the exercise of Congress’s Article III power. In the push-and-pull between judicially-enforced constitutional rules and the desires of current democratic majorities, the potential for Congress’s exercise of its Article III power helps legitimate both constitutionalism and judicial review.