Can Congress limit/stop the Supreme Court's appellate powers? Have they?
January 20, 2013 3:50 PM   Subscribe

Am I reading the US Constitution Article III Section 2 correctly, when it seems to say that Congress can legislatively make exceptions to the Supreme Court having appellate jurisdiction? If I am reading it correctly, have they ever done so, or has there ever been a serious proposal to do so? Are any such exceptions in place now? What were/are the details of such exceptions?

The section in question says, in part, that except for certain specific matters over which the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction, it "shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make."

That reads to me like the Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction unless Congress says it doesn't. That kind of surprised me, so I want to know if I'm interpreting it correctly or not. If I am, I'm additionally interested in situations where it has actually happened, if ever, and stuff like that.
posted by Flunkie to Law & Government (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
posted by sbutler at 4:05 PM on January 20, 2013

Yes, as noted in the linked Wikipedia article, it has happened in statutes where Congress has limited appellate review of claims arising from those statutes.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:50 PM on January 20, 2013

The wiki article linked above has a good discussion.

But it's generally believed that there are limits to this power. It's one thing to say "We're creating an agency to do X, and its decisions are final, i.e., we're not subjecting these decisions to judicial review." Congress has done that on a number of occasions. But it hasn't actually tried to pass a law which is flagrantly unconstitutional, e.g., "Black people can no longer vote," or to amend the Constitution with reference to Art. V,* and then tried to get away with it by saying "Oh, and the Supreme Court doesn't have jurisdiction to review this case." It's the consensus opinion that the ability to strip the Supreme Court of its appellate jurisdiction does not, in fact, mean that Congress can do whatever it wants merely by adding a jurisdiction stripping clause to a statute.

This has not been tested, however, probably because no Congress has been quite crazy enough to try it. So it's best to say "No one really thinks that would work" rather than "It doesn't work that way."

*Believe it or not, Congress is actually pretty good about this. It does occasionally pass laws which are arguably constitutional, but both parties are pretty resigned to the fact that completely disregarding the strictures of the Constitution is not a very productive way of spending your time. A lot of members won't stand for it, and the sitting President--regardless of party--generally won't either.
posted by valkyryn at 4:24 AM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

a serious proposal

Well, you can judge how seriously, but various fringe factions on the right have frequently proposed that some of their cherished issues such as prayer in school or abortion bans be given such Article III exemption by Congress, and occasionally there are even bills that knock around in committee.

I am not aware of any such calls on the left but I imagine it is possible there as well.
posted by dhartung at 4:15 PM on January 21, 2013

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