As citizens and voters, it is important that we understand our Constitution and the structure, rules, and limitations that it sets forth for our government.  We need to understand the system and why it was designed this way so we can tell when our elected leaders are doing the right things or attacking our rights and liberties.  Because of this, I will be addressing the roles and authority of each branch of the government as defined in the Constitution.  I encourage everyone to go read the Constitution for themselves.

Previously we discussed the President in The President: his roles, responsibilities, and powers.  Today we are covering the Supreme Court of the United States as defined in Article 3 of the United States Constitution and modified in the 11th Amendment.  Article 3 is the shortest of the three branches in the Constitution and describes the role and responsibilities of the Supreme Court as the judiciary branch of the government.  Article 3 is broken into the three sections detailed below

Section 1

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.

From this section, we can determine the following…

  • All judicial power shall be placed in one supreme court.
  • All inferior courts will be created by Congress.
  • A Supreme Court judge can remain as long as he/she wishes as long as they do not do anything criminal
  • The judges are to be paid and can not have their pay diminished.

So this section basically just draws out the framework for the Supreme Court’s existance and any sub courts congress may create.

Section 2

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.

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 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.

Note: The underlined “between a State and Citizens of another State” above was part of the 11th Amendment.

Reading this section we can determine:

  • The Supreme and inferior courts have the power to rule on all cases based on federal law, the Constitution, and treaties made.
  • They have the power to rule over all cases involving Ambassadors, public Ministers, and Consuls.
  • They can rule over maritime and admiralty jurisdiction case or basically anything occurring in our ports and the open sea . Read this for a  much more detailed explanation.
  • They have jurisdiction over any cases involving the United States as a party, between a State and a citizen of another State, between citizens of different states, between citizens in the same state claiming lands in another state, between States, and with foreign citizen and states/nations.
  • They do not have jurisdiction over citizens and their own state when it is not a Constitutional, federal law, or a treaty matter.  This change was added by the 11th Amendment.
  • When the case involves Ambassadors, foreign ministers and Consuls, or  a state is a party, the Supreme Court may hear the case initially, in all other cases within its jurisdiction, it may review the lower courts rulings within any rules defined by Congress.
  • All crime trails are to be by jury except in cases of impeachment.
  • Crime trials are to be held in the state where the crime was committed.  If it was not committed in a state, Congress will determine where by law.

As we can see, this section covers the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and any lower courts.  In short, they judge over anything Constitutional or involving federal law, interstate issues, involving foreign ministers and representatives, and basically issue off the coast or on the high seas.  It can not get involved in internal state matters or between a state and its citizens, ensured through the 11th Amendment.

Section 3

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.

The sole purpose of section 3 is to define what treason is, what is needed to convict, and how punishment is determined.  According to the Constitution, treason  is the acting of bringing the nation to war or aiding it’s enemies.  It requires at least two witnesses for conviction.  Punishment is determined by Congress but it can now be extended to the offenders decedents and any property confiscated is still inheritable.


And that is all the Constitution states about the judiciary and the Supreme Court.  As you may have noticed, there is now definition as too the number of judges for the court.  This is actually decided by Congress through legislation.  While Congress has control to decide the court structure and to approve appointments, once appointed, the courts are independent of the control of Congress outside of being impeached.  While the courts have no power to create and change laws or perform any actions themselves, they do have one critical power, the ability to end any unconstitutional law or activity from the other government branches once challenged.  This makes  the Supreme Court a critical check in our system.



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