Article III, Section 2, Clause 2:
In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be a 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.
Despite the breadth of the language of many of the previously cited cases, the actual holdings constitute something less than an affirmance of plenary congressional power to do anything it desires by manipulation of jurisdiction, and, indeed, the cases reflect certain limitations. Setting to one side various formulations that lack textual and subsequent judicial support, such as mandatory vesting of jurisdiction, 1 inherent judicial power, 2 and a theory, variously expressed, that the Supreme Court has "essential constitutional functions" of judicial review that Congress may not impair through jurisdictional limitations, 3 one can nonetheless see the possibilities of restrictions on congressional power flowing from such basic constitutional underpinnings as express prohibitions, separation of powers, and the nature of the judicial function. 4 Whether because of the plethora of scholarly writing contesting the existence of unlimited congressional power or because of another reason, the Court of late has taken to noting constitutional reservations about legislative denials of jurisdiction for judicial review of constitutional issues and construing statutes so as not to deny jurisdiction. 5
Ex parte McCardle 6 marks the farthest advance of congressional imposition of its will on the federal courts, and it is significant because the curb related to the availability of the writ of habeas corpus, which is marked out with special recognition by the Constitution. 7
But how far did McCardle actually reach? In concluding its opinion, the Court carefully observed: "Counsel seem to have supposed, if effect be given to the repealing act in question, that the whole appellate power of the court, in cases of habeas corpus, is denied. But this is an error. The act of 1868 does not exempt from that jurisdiction any cases but appeals from Circuit Courts under the act of 1867. It does not affect the jurisdiction which was previously exercised." 8 A year later, in Ex parte Yerger, 9 the Court held that it did have authority under the Judiciary Act of 1789 to review on certiorari a denial by a circuit court of a petition for writ of habeas corpus on behalf of one held by the military in the South. It thus remains unclear whether the Court would have followed its language suggesting plenary congressional control if the effect had been to deny absolutely an appeal from a denial of a writ of habeas corpus. 10
Another Reconstruction Congress attempt to curb the judiciary failed in United States v. Klein, 11 in which the Court voided a statute, couched in jurisdictional terms, which attempted to set aside both the effect of a presidential pardon and the judicial effectuation of such a pardon. 12 The statute declared that no pardon was to be admissible in evidence in support of any claim against the United States in the Court of Claims for the return of confiscated property of Confederates nor, if already put in evidence in a pending case, should it be considered on behalf of the claimant by the Court of Claims or by the Supreme Court on appeal. Proof of loyalty was required to be made according to provisions of certain congressional enactments, and when judgment had already been rendered on other proof of loyalty the Supreme Court on appeal should have no further jurisdiction and should dismiss for want of jurisdiction. Moreover, it was provided that the recitation in any pardon which had been received that the claimant had taken part in the rebellion was to be taken as conclusive evidence that the claimant had been disloyal and was not entitled to regain his property.
The Court began by reaffirming that Congress controlled the existence of the inferior federal courts and the jurisdiction vested in them and the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. "But the language of this provision shows plainly that it does not intend to withhold appellate jurisdiction except as a means to an end. . . . It is evident . . . that the denial of jurisdiction to this court, as well as to the Court of Claims, is founded solely on the application of a rule of decision, in causes pending, prescribed by Congress. The Court has jurisdiction of the cause to a given point; but when it ascertains that a certain state of things exists, its jurisdiction is to cease and it is required to dismiss the cause for want of jurisdiction."
"It seems to us that this is not an exercise of the acknowledged power of Congress to make exceptions and prescribe regulations to the appellate power." 13 The statute was void for two reasons; it "infring[ed] the constitutional power of the Executive," 14 and it "prescrib[ed] a rule for the decision of a cause in a particular way." 15 While the precise import of Klein—with its broad language prohibiting Congress prescribing a "rule of decision" that unduly invades core judicial functions—has puzzled legal scholars, 16 it appears that Klein broadly stands for the proposition that Congress may not usurp the judiciary’s power to interpret and apply the law by directing a court "how pre-existing law applies to particular circumstances" before it. 17 Few laws, however, have been struck down for improperly prescribing a "rule of decision" that a court must follow, and the Court has, in more recent years, declined to interpret Klein as inhibiting Congress from "amend[ing] applicable law." 18
Instead, the Court has recognized that Congress may, without running afoul of Klein, direct courts to apply newly enacted legislation to pending civil cases, even when such an application would alter the outcome in the case. 19 Moreover, the general permissibility under Article III of legislation affecting pending litigation extends to statutes that direct courts to apply a new legal standard even when the underlying facts of a case are undisputed, functionally leaving the court with nothing to decide. For example, in Bank Markazi v. Peterson, the Court upheld a provision of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 that made a designated set of assets available for recovery to satisfy a discrete and finite set of default judgments, notwithstanding the fact that the change in the underlying law made the result of the pending case all but a "forgone conclusion." 20In addition, the Bank Markazi Court, recognizing Congress’s authority to legislate on "one or a very small number of specific subjects," rejected the argument that particularized congressional legislation that alters the substantive law governing a specific case—standing alone—impinges on the judicial power in violation of Article III. 21The Court held as such, even though the legislation in question identified a case by caption and docket number and did not apply to similar enforcement actions involving any other assets. 22Accordingly, Klein’s prohibition on congressionally prescribed "rule[s] of decision" appears to be limited to instances where Congress "fails to supply any new legal standard effectuating the lawmakers’ reasonable policy judgment" and instead merely compels a court to make particular findings or results under the old law. 23
In Patchak v. Zinke, the Court reiterated the distinction “between permissible exercises of the legislative power and impermissible infringements of the judicial power.” 24 In Patchak, a neighboring landowner challenged the authority of the Secretary of the Interior to invoke the Indian Reorganization Act 25 and take into trust a property on behalf of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, which planned to build a casino on the property. 26 While the suit was on remand in a district court, Congress enacted the Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act, which “reaffirmed as trust land” the Tribe’s Property and provided that “an action . . . relating to [that] land shall not be filed or maintained in a Federal court and shall be promptly dismissed.” 27 In response, the district court dismissed the suit, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed. 28 On appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal, holding that the Gun Lake Act did not violate Article III. 29
Citing Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., a plurality of the Court restated that Congress may not exercise the judicial power, but its legislative power permits Congress to make laws that apply retroactively to pending lawsuits, even when the law effectively ensures that one side will win. 30 The plurality opinion stated that “[t]o distinguish between permissible exercises of the legislative power and impermissible infringements of the judicial power, this Court’s precedents establish the following rule: Congress violates Article III when it ‘compel[s] . . . findings or results under old law.’ But Congress does not violate Article III when it ‘changes the law.’” 31 In sum, when congressional action compels an Article III court to make certain findings under old law, the plurality agreed with the dissenters that Congress cannot usurp the judiciary’s power by saying, for example, “‘[i]n Smith v. Jones, Smith wins.’” 32 Furthermore, while the Court could not agree on a broader principle of when a facially neutral law is permissible, four Justices concluded that a facially neutral law that strips the courts of jurisdiction did not raise an Article III concern, even when the natural result of the law ensured that the government would win the only pending case the law would implicate. Under these principles, the Court concluded that in the Gun Lake Act Congress changed the law, which was “well within Congress’ authority and d[id] not violate Article III.” 33
Other restraints on congressional power over the federal courts may be gleaned from the opinion in the much-disputed Crowell v. Benson. 34 In an 1856 case, the Court distinguished between matters of private right which from their nature were the subject of a suit at the common law, equity, or admiralty and which cannot be withdrawn from judicial cognizance, and those matters of public right which, though susceptible of judicial determination, did not require it and which might or might not be brought within judicial cognizance. 35 What this might mean was elaborated in Crowell v. Benson, 36 involving the finality to be accorded administrative findings of jurisdictional facts in compensation cases. In holding that an employer was entitled to a trial de novo of the constitutional jurisdictional facts of the matter of the employer-employee relationship and of the occurrence of the injury in interstate commerce, Chief Justice Hughes fused the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and Article III but emphasized that the issue ultimately was "rather a question of the appropriate maintenance of the Federal judicial power" and "whether the Congress may substitute for constitutional courts, in which the judicial power of the United States is vested, an administrative agency . . . for the final determination of the existence of the facts upon which the enforcement of the constitutional rights of the citizen depend." The answer was stated broadly. "In cases brought to enforce constitutional rights, the judicial power of the United States necessarily extends to the independent determination of all questions, both of fact and law, necessary to the performance of that supreme function. . . . We think that the essential independence of the exercise of the judicial power of the United States in the enforcement of constitutional rights requires that the Federal court should determine such an issue upon its own record and the facts elicited before it." 37
It is not at all clear that, in this respect, Crowell v. Benson remains good law. It has never been overruled, and it has been cited by several Justices approvingly, 38 but the Court has never applied the principle to control another case. 39
Express Constitutional Restrictions on Congress
"[T]he Constitution is filled with provisions that grant Congress or the States specific power to legislate in certain areas; these granted powers are always subject to the limitations that they may not be exercised in a way that violates other specific provisions of the Constitution." 40 The Supreme Court has had no occasion to deal with this principle in the context of Congress’s power over its jurisdiction and the jurisdiction of the inferior federal courts, but the passage of the Portal-to-Portal Act 41 presented the lower courts such an opportunity. The Act extinguished back-pay claims growing out of several Supreme Court interpretations of the Fair Labor Standards Act; it also provided that no court should have jurisdiction to enforce any claim arising from these decisions. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit sustained the Act. 42 The court noted that the withdrawal of jurisdiction would be ineffective if the extinguishment of the claims as a substantive matter were invalid. "We think . . . that the exercise by Congress of its control over jurisdiction is subject to compliance with at least the requirements of the Fifth Amendment. That is to say, while Congress has the undoubted power to give, withhold, and restrict the jurisdiction of the courts other than the Supreme Court, it must not so exercise that power as to deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law or to take private property without just compensation." 43 The Court, however, found that the Portal-to-Portal Act "did not violate the Fifth Amendment in so far as it may have withdrawn from private individuals . . . any rights . . . which rested upon private contracts they had made. Nor is the Portal-to-Portal Act a violation of Article III of the Constitution or an encroachment upon the separate power of the judiciary." 44
There thus remains a measure of doubt that Congress’s power over the federal courts is as plenary as some of the Court's language suggests it is. Congress has a vast amount of discretion in conferring and withdrawing and structuring the original and appellate jurisdiction of the inferior federal courts and the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court; so much is clear from the practice since 1789 and the holdings of many Court decisions. That its power extends to accomplishing by means of its control over jurisdiction actions which it could not do directly by substantive enactment is by no means clear from the text of the Constitution or from the cases.