ArtIII.S1.1.1.2.2.1 Reopening Final Judicial Decisions

Article III, 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.

As judicial power is the authority to render dispositive judgments, Congress violates the separation of powers when it purports to alter final judgments of Article III courts.1 One such instance arose when the Court unexpectedly recognized a statute of limitations for certain securities actions that was shorter than what had been recognized in many jurisdictions, resulting in the dismissal of several suits, which then become final because they were not appealed. Congress subsequently enacted a statute that, though not changing the limitations period prospectively, retroactively extended the time for suits that had been dismissed and provided for the reopening of these final judgments. In Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc.,2 the Court invalidated the statute, holding it impermissible for Congress to disturb a final judgment. Having achieved finality, . . . a judicial decision becomes the last word of the judicial department with regard to a particular case or controversy, and Congress may not declare by retroactive legislation that the law applicable to that very case was something other than what the courts said it was.3 In Miller v. French,4 by contrast, the Court ruled that the Prison Litigation Reform Act's automatic stay of ongoing injunctions remedying violations of prisoners' rights did not amount to an unconstitutional legislative revision of a final judgment. Rather, the automatic stay merely altered the prospective effect of injunctions, and it is well established that such prospective relief remains subject to alteration due to changes in the underlying law.5

Since 1792, the federal courts have emphasized finality of judgment as an essential attribute of judicial power. In that year, Congress authorized Revolutionary War veterans to file pension claims in circuit courts of the United States, directed the judges to certify to the Secretary of War the degree of a claimant's disability and their opinion with regard to the proper percentage of monthly pay to be awarded, but empowered the Secretary to withhold judicially certified claimants from the pension list if he suspected imposition or mistake.6 The Justices then on circuit almost immediately forwarded objections to the President, contending that the statute was unconstitutional because the judicial power was constitutionally committed to the judicial department, the duties imposed by the act were not judicial, and the subjection of a court's opinions to revision or control by an officer of the executive or the legislature was not authorized by the Constitution.7

Attorney General Randolph, upon the refusal of the circuit courts to act under the new statute, filed a motion for mandamus in the Supreme Court to direct the Circuit Court in Pennsylvania to proceed on a petition filed by one Hayburn seeking a pension. Although the Court heard argument, it put off decision until the next term, presumably because Congress was already acting to delete the objectionable features of the act. Upon enactment of the new law, the Court dismissed the action.8 Although the Court's opinion contained little analysis, Hayburn's Case has since been cited by the Court to reject efforts to give it and the lower federal courts jurisdiction over cases in which judgment would be subject to executive or legislative revision.9 Thus, in a 1948 case, the Court held that an order of the Civil Aeronautics Board denying to a citizen air carrier a certificate of convenience and necessity for an overseas and foreign air route was, despite statutory language to the contrary, not reviewable by the courts. Because Congress had also deemed such an order subject to discretionary review and revision by the President, the lower court found, and the Supreme Court affirmed, that the courts did not have the authority to review the President's decision. While the lower Court had then attempted to reconcile the statutory scheme by permitting presidential review of the order after judicial review, the Court rejected this interpretation. [I]f the President may completely disregard the judgment of the court, it would be only because it is one the courts were not authorized to render. Judgments within the powers vested in courts by the Judiciary Article of the Constitution may not lawfully be revised, overturned or refused faith and credit by another Department of Government.10

Footnotes

  1.  Jump to essay-1Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., 514 U.S. 211, 218–19 (1995). The Court was careful to delineate the difference between attempting to alter a final judgment, one rendered by a court and either not appealed or affirmed on appeal, and legislatively amending a statute so as to change the law as it existed at the time a court issued a decision that was on appeal or otherwise still alive at the time a federal court reviewed the determination below. A court must apply the law as revised when it considers the prior interpretation. Id. at 226–27. Article III creates or authorizes Congress to create not a collection of unconnected courts, but a judicial department composed of inferior courts and one Supreme Court. Within that hierarchy, the decision of an inferior court is not (unless the time for appeal has expired) the final word of the department as a whole. Id. at 227.
  2.  Jump to essay-2514 U.S. 211 (1995).
  3.  Jump to essay-3514 U.S. at 227 (emphasis supplied by Court).
  4.  Jump to essay-4530 U.S. 327 (2000).
  5.  Jump to essay-5530 U.S. at 344.
  6.  Jump to essay-6Act of March 23, 1792, 1 Stat. 243.
  7.  Jump to essay-71 American State Papers: Miscellaneous Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States 49, 51, 52 (1832). President Washington transmitted the remonstrances to Congress. 1 Messages and Papers of the Presidents 123, 133 (J. Richardson comp., 1897). The objections are also appended to the order of the Court in Hayburn's Case, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 409, 410 (1792). Note that some of the Justices declared their willingness to perform under the act as commissioners rather than as judges. Cf. United States v. Ferreira, 54 U.S. (13 How.) 40, 52–53 (1852). The assumption by judges that they could act in some positions as individuals while remaining judges, an assumption many times acted upon, was approved in Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361, 397–408 (1989).
  8.  Jump to essay-8Hayburn's Case, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 409 (1792). The new pension law was the Act of February 28, 1793, 1 Stat. 324. The reason for the Court's inaction may, on the other hand, have been doubt about the proper role of the Attorney General in the matter, an issue raised in the opinion. See Marcus & Teir, Hayburn's Case: A Misinterpretation of Precedent, 1988 Wis. L. Rev. 4; Bloch, The Early Role of the Attorney General in Our Constitutional Scheme: In the Beginning There was Pragmatism, 1989 Duke L. J. 561, 590–618. Notice the Court's discussion in Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., 514 U.S. 211, 218, 225–26 (1995).
  9.  Jump to essay-9See United States v. Ferreira, 54 U.S. (13 How.) 40 (1852); Gordon v. United States, 69 U.S. (2 Wall.) 561 (1865); In re Sanborn, 148 U.S. 222 (1893); cf. McGrath v. Kritensen, 340 U.S. 162, 167–168 (1950).
  10.  Jump to essay-10Chicago & S. Air Lines v. Waterman S.S. Corp., 333 U.S. 103, 113 (1948).