Battle in New York: The Question of the Federal Judiciary


 A simple observation of the Federal court system would beg the question whether our courts are a mere mechanism of the giant leviathan of present-day government, or whether the courts have remained unaffected by changes in government. From the fall of 1787 until the spring of 1788 a battle was waged in New York between two factions: the Federalist and the Anti-Federalist. The Federalists were led by the magnanimous Publius and the Anti-Federalists were led by Brutus. Their discussions on the Federal judiciary are the most important carried out between Publius and Brutus. It appears that neither of them had a firm grasp of the Federal judiciary and the possible outcome of the power granted to this branch of government. Two-hundred years after the discussions were held, in America we are left with what appears to be a corruption of the then proposed Federal judiciary as Brutus predicted, but also a Federal judiciary that Publius in many aspects predicted would develop.

            In order to properly evaluate the arguments made by both Publius and Brutus we must begin our observation from the question of the nature and extent of judicial power and whether it poses any threat to the other two branches. We shall also observe the discussion between Brutus and Publius concerning the other matters in which the Federal judiciary holds authority and their relation to the extent of judicial power.

            What is the nature of the power granted to the Federal judiciary by the Constitution of 1787? Article III of the Constitution is a scant three sections long, by far the shortest article of the Constitution that deals with the branches of government. Concerning the direct power granted to the Federal judiciary the Constitution says, “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.”[1] Despite the scant manner in which the Constitution outlines the powers granted to the Federal judiciary, Publius and Brutus spend an enormous amount of time devoted to this very question. Publius calls the Federal judiciary, “the best expedient which can be devised in any government to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws.”[2]  The purpose of the Federal judiciary he proposes is to prevent “the encroachments and oppressions of the representative body.”[3]  One can see that this has been the case on a number of occasions throughout American legal history, most specifically during the New Deal. But for many in the fall of 1787 the ability of the Federal judiciary to prevent these encroachments was further from their minds as to the power of the Federal judiciary. Publius once again counters these fears by asserting that the Federal judiciary will be the weakest of all the branches as it lacks power over the purse and sword. Publius further argues:

Whoever attentively considers the different departments of power must perceive that, in a government in which they are separated from each other, the judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them. [4]

 Brutus attempts to refute this argument made by Publius, asserting that this Federal judiciary will not be a protector and defender of our rights but instead will be just as apt to destroy them as either of the other branches.

            The main authority granted to the Federal judiciary according to Publius and Brutus is the power to strict down laws that are not made in pursuit of the Constitution of the United States. This is the point of contention for Brutus, for he believes that this power alone will give the courts unfettered access to destroy the rights of the people.[5] That the Federal courts will attempt to use their authority to strike down laws to bring it more power is not an unintelligent argument made by Brutus. In fact, it is the better argument made by the two authors. The last half century has seen an attempt by the courts to usurp their constitutionally appointed authority and the authority of both the legislative and executive branches. Brutus also asserts, “This power in the judicial will enable them to mould the government, into almost any shape they please.”[6] Clearly Brutus believes that the meek department of the Federal judiciary argued by Publius is not at all the true nature in which the courts will possess. The notion that the Federal courts will simply attempt to ascertain the meaning of the Constitution and to prevent the encroachment of the legislative power on that of the people held true until the latter half of the twentieth century, when what Brutus predicted came to fruition.

            Next shall be the question of the other powers of the Federal judiciary granted by the Constitution of 1787. Brutus’ main point of contention with these other powers can be summed up in these words, “For, I conceive that the judicial power should be commensurate with the legislative. Or, in other words, the supreme court should have authority to determine questions arising under the laws of the union.”[7] He contends that the Federal judiciary may not have the power to declare what the powers of the legislative branch are, but to merely declare acts of the legislative unconstitutional.[8] When it comes to treaties, Brutus holds that the Federal judiciary may play a role if the treaty in question harms the rights of individual citizens. However to declare the intentions, meaning or nature of the treaty is a power that Brutus wishes not to see in the hands of the Federal judiciary. As Brutus states:

For as treaties will be the law of the land, ever power who have rights or privileges secured by treaty, will have aid of the courts of law, in recovering them. But I do not understand, what is meant by equity arising under a treaty. I presume every right which can be claimed under a treaty, must be claimed by virtue of some article or clause contained in it, which gives the right in plain and obvious words; or at least, I conceive, that the rules for explaining treaties, are so well ascertained, that there is no need of having recourse to an equitable construction. If under this power, the courts are to explain treaties, according to what they conceive their spirit, which is not less than a power to give them whatever extension they may judge proper, it is a dangerous and improper power.[9]

Likewise, Brutus is against the provisions of the Constitution granting jurisdiction of the Federal judiciary to matters stemming from a state and a citizen of another state.[10] Brutus argues, “It is improper, because it subjects a state to answer in a court of law, to the suit of an individual. This is humiliating and degrading to a government, and, what I believe, the supreme authority of no state ever submitted to.”[11] This argument by Brutus is horrible; to assert that the source of government’s power ought not to have the authority to reign in it under a court of law is ludicrous. He goes on to argue:

The evil consequences that will flow from the exercise of this power, will best appear by tracing it in its operation. The constitution does not direct the mode in which an individual shall commence a suit against a state or the manner in which the judgement of the court shall be carried into execution, but it gives the legislature full power to pass all laws which shall be proper and necessary for the purpose. And they certainly must make provision for these purposes, or otherwise the power of the judicial will be nugatory. [12]

 Brutus’ argument is not totally unfounded though, as he fears that citizens of one state will attempt to prevent another state from operating properly. Brutus uses the example of the debts owed by the states to their citizens. He believes that the notes given by the states to their citizens can get into the hands of a citizen of another state, allowing for that citizen to take the state to court in order to recoup the money owed them. Long story short, Brutus asserts this will cause the states to go bankrupt and ultimately make them submit to the Federal government.[13]

            Publius on the other hand argues that the authority granted to the Federal judiciary to handle cases in regard to treaties as totally legitimate. He states:

As the denial or the perversion of justice by the sentences of courts, as well as in any other manner, is with reason classed among the just causes of war, it will follow that the federal judiciary ought to have cognizance of all causes in which the citizens of other countries are concerned. This is not less essential to the preservation of the public faith than to the security of the public tranquility.[14]

 Publius is fearful that a foreign nation will take offense if a citizen of their country is sentenced to serve time in another nation. This would certainly cause a breach of public safety, if that other nation wished to wage war or institute other means of punishing them. The ability of the Federal judiciary to oversee matters concerning cases in which treaties are concerned is certainly a matter that Publius thinks need not be contested. If the commonwealth of Massachusetts were to convict a man from France for a crime, it would fall under the Union as a whole to protect the commonwealth from repercussions by the sovereign nation of France. As to the issue concerning one state and the citizen of another, Publius wholly disagrees with Brutus’ assessment. Publius states, “The power of determining causes between two States, or between one State and the citizens of another, and between the citizens of different States, is perhaps no less essential to the peace of the Union than that which has been just examined.”[15] If two states were to enter into disagreement over any trivial matter, it could result in a private war between the two states and possibility of a civil war throughout the whole country. For the Federal government to assert itself into matters between two states or between the citizens of one state against another state is for the protection of the peace and public safety of the whole country. Furthermore, Publius argues, “No man ought certainly to be judge in his own cause, or in any cause in respect to which he has the least interest or bias.”[16] Under this assertion, Publius believes that the Federal judiciary ought to be given authority over such matters as the impartial judge.

            Clearly it can be seen that both Brutus and Publius were passionate about the subject of the Federal judiciary. Neither men make arguments that are clearly accurate, however that at times both men seem to have the better argument over the other. Brutus’ contention is that the power to rule laws unconstitutional may in fact allow for the Federal judiciary to usurp the authority of the other two branches. However, Publius wins the argument when it comes to matters of treaties and matters arising from the various states. It is based on these observations that it cannot be said that the Federal judiciary has become a mechanism for the leviathan of present-day government. But that it has in many ways remained the vision of Publius, as the impartial protector of individual rights against the usurpation of the Federal and state governments, albeit at times it has come dangerously close to losing itself in the leviathan.


[1]Kesler, Charles R., ed. The Federalist Papers.
[2]Article III Section II of the U.S. Constitution of 1787.

[3]Kesler, Charles R., ed. The Federalist Papers. Federalist #78

 [4]Kesler, Charles R., ed. The Federalist Papers. Federalist #78

 [5]Kesler, Charles R., ed. The Federalist Papers. Federalist #78

 [6]“From these considerations the judges will be interested to extend the powers of the courts, and to construe the constitution as much as possible, in such a way as to favour it; and that they will do it appears probable.” – Storing, Herbert J., ed. The Anti-Federalist: Writings by the Opponents of the Constitution Brutus’ Essay number XI.

[7]Storing, Herbert J., ed. The Anti-Federalist: Writings by the Opponents of the Constitution Brutus’ Essay number XI

 [8]Storing, Herbert J., ed. The Anti-Federalist: Writings by the Opponents of the Constitution Brutus’ Essay number XIII

[9]Storing, Herbert J., ed. The Anti-Federalist: Writings by the Opponents of the Constitution Brutus’ Essay number XIII

 [10]Storing, Herbert J., ed. The Anti-Federalist: Writings by the Opponents of the Constitution Brutus’ Essay number XIII

 [11]Storing, Herbert J., ed. The Anti-Federalist: Writings by the Opponents of the Constitution Brutus’ Essay number XIII

[12]Storing, Herbert J., ed. The Anti-Federalist: Writings by the Opponents of the Constitution.  Brutus’ Essay number XIII

 [13]Storing, Herbert J., ed. The Anti-Federalist: Writings by the Opponents of the Constitution Brutus’ Essay number XIII

 [14]Kesler, Charles R., ed. The Federalist Papers. Federalist #80

 [15]Kesler, Charles R., ed. The Federalist Papers. Federalist #80

 [16]Kesler, Charles R., ed. The Federalist Papers. Federalist #80

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