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Federal tribunals in the United States

In the United States, the American legal system includes both state courts and United States federal courts. The federal tribunals may be an Article III tribunal (federal court) or another adjudicative body classified as an Article I or an Article IV tribunal. These courts are described in reference to the article of the Constitution from which the tribunal's authority stems.

Article III tribunals

Article III tribunals consist of certain federal courts. These courts are the Supreme Court of the United States and the inferior courts established by the Congress, which currently are the 13 United States courts of appeals, the 91 United States district courts, and the U.S. Court of International Trade. They constitute the judicial branch of the federal government (which is defined by Article III of the Constitution). Pursuant to the Appointments Clause in Article II, all members of Article III tribunals are appointed by the President and are confirmed by the Senate.

Under the Constitution, Congress can vest these courts with jurisdiction to hear cases involving the Constitution or federal law and certain cases involving disputes between citizens of different states or countries. Article III includes provisions to protect the courts against influence by the other branches of government: judges may not have their salaries reduced during their tenure in office, and their appointment is for life (barring impeachment).

The Supreme Court has ruled that only Article III courts may render final judgments in cases involving life, liberty, and private property rights, with limited exceptions, as discussed below.

Article I tribunals

Article I tribunals consist of certain federal courts and other forms of adjudicative bodies. These tribunals, as created by Congress, are of various forms, and have differing levels of judicial independence. They can be Article I Courts (also called legislative courts) set up by Congress to review agency decisions, military courts-martial appeal courts, ancillary courts with judges appointed by Article III appeals court judges, or administrative agencies and administrative law judges (ALJs).

Article I judges do not enjoy the same protections as their Article III counterparts. For example, these judges do not enjoy life tenure, and Congress may reduce their salaries.

The existence of Article I tribunals has been controversial, and their power has been challenged before the United States Supreme Court, which has determined that Article I tribunals may exist, but that their power must be circumscribed and, when a potential deprivation of life, liberty, property, or property interest is involved, their decisions are often subject to ultimate review in an Article III court.

Article IV tribunals

The United States territorial courts are tribunals established in territories of the United States by the United States Congress, pursuant to its power under Article Four of the United States Constitution, the Territorial Clause.[1] Many United States territorial courts are defunct because the territories under their jurisdictions have become states or have been retroceded.

An example of a territorial court is the High Court of American Samoa, a court established pursuant to the Constitution of American Samoa. As an unincorporated territory, the Ratification Act of 1929 vested all civil, judicial and military powers in the President, who in turn delegated authority to the Secretary of the Interior in Executive Order 10264, who in turn promulgated the Constitution of American Samoa, which authorizes the court. As such, the Secretary retains ultimate authority over the courts.[2]

Other United States territorial courts still in existence are:

Congress establishes Article III Court for Puerto Rico

Before 1966, the United States District Court in Puerto Rico was an Article IV court.[3] In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Pub.L. 89–571, 80 Stat. 764, which transformed the Article IV federal district court in Puerto Rico to an Article III Court. This Act of Congress was not conducted pursuant to Article IV of the Constitution, the Territorial Clause, but rather under Article III. This marks the first and only occasion in United States history in which Congress has established an Article III Court in a territory other than the District of Columbia. From then on, judges appointed to serve on the Puerto Rico federal district court have been Article III judges appointed under the Constitution of the United States. Like their mainland brethren they are entitled to life tenure and salary protection.

This important change in the federal judicial structure of the island was implemented not as a request of the Commonwealth government, but rather at the repeated request of the Judicial Conference of the United States.[4]

The District Court of Puerto Rico is part of the First Circuit, which sits in Boston.

Supreme Court rulings limiting the power of Article I and Article IV tribunals

The concept of a legislative court was first defined by Chief Justice John Marshall in the case of American Ins. Co. v. 356 Bales of Cotton, 1 Pet. 511 (1828), which is sometimes referred to as Canter, after a claimant in the case. In this case, a court in what was then the Territory of Florida had made a ruling on the disposition of some bales of cotton that had been recovered from a sunken ship. This clearly fell into the realm of admiralty law, which is part of the federal judicial power according to Article III of the Constitution. Yet the judges of the Florida Territorial Court had four-year terms, not the lifetime appointments required by Article III of the Constitution. Marshall's solution was to declare that territorial courts were established under Article I of the constitution. As such, they could not exercise the federal judicial power, and therefore the law that placed admiralty cases in their jurisdiction was unconstitutional.

Tenure that is guaranteed by the Constitution is a badge of a judge of an Article III court. The argument that mere statutory tenure is sufficient for judges of Article III courts was authoritatively answered in Ex parte Bakelite Corp.:[5]

... the argument is fallacious. It mistakenly assumes that whether a court is of one class or the other depends on the intention of Congress, whereas the true test lies in the power under which the court was created and in the jurisdiction conferred. Nor has there been any settled practice on the part of Congress which gives special significance to the absence or presence of a provision respecting the tenure of judges. This may be illustrated by two citations. The same Congress that created the Court of Customs Appeals made provision for five additional circuit judges and declared that they should [370 U.S. 530, 597] hold their offices during good behavior; and yet the status of the judges was the same as it would have been had that declaration been omitted. In creating courts for some of the Territories Congress failed to include a provision fixing the tenure of the judges; but the courts became legislative courts just as if such a provision had been included.

In Glidden Co. v. Zdanok, the court made the following statement regarding courts in unincorporated territories:

Upon like considerations, Article III has been viewed as inapplicable to courts created in unincorporated territories outside the mainland, Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244, 266-267; Balzac v. Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298, 312-313; cf. Dorr v. United States, 195 U.S. 138, 145, 149, and to the consular courts established by concessions from foreign countries, In re Ross, 140 U.S. 453, 464-465, 480.

Ever since Canter, the federal courts have been wrestling with the division between legislative and judicial courts. The Supreme Court most thoroughly delineated the permissible scope of Article I tribunals in Northern Pipeline Co. v. Marathon Pipe Line Co., 458 U.S. 50 (1982), striking down the statute that created the original U.S. bankruptcy court. The Court noted in that opinion that the framers of the Constitution had developed a scheme of separation of powers which clearly required that the judiciary be kept independent of the other two branches via the mechanism of lifetime appointments. This decision was subsequently revisited and affirmed in Stern v. Marshall, 564 U.S. ___ (2011). However, the Court noted three situations (based on historical understanding) in which Congress could give judicial power to non-Article III courts:

  1. Courts for non-state areas (U.S. territories and the District of Columbia) in which Congress is acting as both local and national government.
  2. Military courts (or courts-martial), under the historical understanding and clearly laid out exceptions in the Constitution.
  3. Legislative courts established under the premise that, where Congress could have simply given the Executive Branch the power to make a decision, it has the lesser power to create a tribunal to make that decision. This power is limited to adjudication of public rights, such as the settling of disputes between the citizens and the government.

The Court also found that Congress has the power under Article I to create adjunct tribunals, so long as the "essential attributes of judicial power" stay in Article III courts. This power derives from two sources. First, when Congress creates rights, it can require those asserting such rights to go through an Article I tribunal. Second, Congress can create non-Article III tribunals to help Article III courts deal with their workload, but only if the Article I tribunals are under the control of the Article III courts. The bankruptcy courts, as well as the tribunals of magistrate judges who decide some issues in the district courts, fall within this category of "adjunct" tribunals. All actions heard in an Article I tribunal are subject to de novo review in the supervising Article III court, which retains the exclusive power to make and enforce final judgments.

Pursuant to Congress' authority under Article IV, §3, of the Constitution to "make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States;" Congress may create territorial courts and vest them with subject-matter jurisdiction over causes arising under both federal law and local law. But "the Supreme Court long ago determined that in the 'unincorporated' territories, such as American Samoa, the guarantees of the Constitution apply only insofar as its 'fundamental limitations in favor of personal rights' express 'principles which are the basis of all free government which cannot be with impunity transcended.'"[6]

The Supreme Court noted in Commodity Futures Trading Commission v. Schor, 478 U.S. 833 (1986), that parties to litigation may voluntarily waive their right to an Article III tribunal and thereby submit themselves to a binding judgment from an Article I tribunal. However, the Supreme Court later noted in Stern v. Marshall, 564 U.S. ___ (2011), that a party's right to an Article III tribunal is not always voluntarily waiveable in an Article I tribunal for suits at common law. Similarly, in Granfinanciera, S. A. v. Nordberg, 492 U.S. 33 (1989), the Court noted that a litigant's right to jury trial under Article VII is also not generally waivable in an Article I tribunal for suits at common law. The Supreme Court further noted in Granfinanciera and Stern the parallel analysis of rights under Article III and Article VII.

The U.S. Supreme Court in the course of the opinion from Rassmussen v. United States (197 U.S. 596, 524) declared (p. 352, L. ed. p. 186, Sup. Ct. Rep. p. 1119):

'Alaska is one of the territories of the United States. It was so designated in that order [referring to the order of this court assigning to the ninth circuit], and has always been so regarded. And the court established by the act of 1884 is the court of last resort within the limits of that territory. It is, therefore, in every substantial sense, the supreme court of that territory.'

Article IV judges do not have the authority to decide petitioners' appeals or be appointed to a United States Court of Appeals.[7] In Nguyen v. United States (2003), the Supreme Court ruled that a panel of the Court of Appeals consisting of two Article III judges and one Article IV judge did not have the authority to decide petitioners' appeals.

List of Article I, Article III and Article IV tribunals

Article I tribunals Article III tribunals Article IV tribunals

See also


  1. ^ NGUYEN V. UNITED STATES (01-10873) 540 U.S. 935 (2003), The United States Supreme Court, retrieved 2010-01-06 
  2. ^ Leibowitz, Arnold H (1989). Defining Status: A Comprehensive Analysis of United States Territorial Relations. p. 420.  
  3. ^ Balzac v. Porto Rico
  4. ^ Senate Report No. 1504, 1966 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2786-90.
  5. ^ Ex parte Bakelite Corp., at 459-460
  6. ^ Mormons v. Hodel, 830 F.2d 374 (1987), citing Dorr v. United States, 195 U.S. 138 (1904)
  7. ^ NGUYEN V. UNITED STATES (01-10873) 540 U.S. 935 (2003), The United States Supreme Court, retrieved 2010-01-06 
  • Johnny H. Killian and George A. Costello (ed.), ed. (1996). The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation: Annotations of Cases Decided by the Supreme Court of the United States to June 29, 1992. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC. Senate Document 103–6. 
    • The section on Article III is downloadable as a 1.1 MB PDF at
    • Page 604 of this work asserts that the concept of a legislative court first appears in Canter.
  • Donald L. Doernberg, C. Keith Wingate, and Donald H. Zeigler (ed.), ed. (2004). Federal Courts, Federalism and Separation of Powers: Cases and Materials. West Group Publishing.  
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