Blackstone’s Commentaries:
with Notes of Reference (1803)

St. George Tucker

Judicial Powers

III. The constitution and powers of the judiciary department of the federal government have been equally the subject of applause and censure; of confidence and jealousy.293 The unexceptionable mode of appointing the judges, and their constitutional independence294 of every other branch of the government merit an eulogium, which all would have concurred in bestowing on this part of the constitution of the United States, had not the powers of that department been extended to objects which might hazard the tranquility of the union in attempting to secure it. No one doubted the necessity and propriety of a federal judiciary, where an ultimate decision might be had upon such questions as might arise under the law of nations, and eventually embroil the American nation with other sovereign powers: nor was it doubted that such a tribunal was necessary to decide such differences as might possibly arise between the several members of the confederacy, or between parties claiming lands under grants from different states. But the objects of the federal jurisdiction were originally far more numerous; extending to “all cases in law and equity arising under the constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made, or to be made, under their authority; to all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls; to all cases of admiralty. and maritime jurisdiction; to controversies to which the United States shall be a party; and between two or more states; between a state and citizens of another state; between citizens of different states; between citizens of the same state claiming lands under grants of different states; and between a state, or the citizens thereof, and foreign states, citizens or subjects.”295 “These objects,” a writer on the subject remarks, “are so numerous, and the shades of distinction between civil causes are oftentimes so slight, that it is more than probable the state judicatories will be wholly superceded; for in contests about jurisdiction, the federal court, as the most powerful, will ever
prevail.”296 This conclusion will not appear to be ill-founded, if we advert to the ingenious fictions which have been from time to time adopted in the courts of Great Britain, in order to countenance the claim of jurisdiction.297 But more solid objections seemed to arise from the want of a sufficient security for the liberty of the citizen in criminal prosecutions: the defect of an adequate provision for the trial by jury in civil cases, and the burdens and mischiefs which might arise from the re-examination of facts, upon an appeal. These objections, however, seem to be completely removed by the amendments proposed by the first congress, and since ratified, and made a part of the constitution.298 Another important objection has been likewise in some degree obviated, by the act of 1 Cong. 1 Sess. c. 20. §. 11, which declares, that no district or circuit court shall have cognizance of any suit upon a promissory note, or other chose in action in favor of an assignee, except in cases of foreign bills of exchange, unless a suit might have been prosecuted in such court if no assignment had been made: it is, however, to be wished, that this provision had formed a part of the amendments to the constitution, which were proposed at the same session, since the objection, upon constitutional grounds, still remains: more especially, as a very serious attempt was made during the last session of the sixth congress to repeal this legislative provision. But the grand objection, that the states were made subject to the action of an individual, still remained for several years, notwithstanding the concurring dissent of several states at the time of accepting the constitution.299 Nor was it till after several of the states300 had actually been sued in the federal courts, that the third congress proposed an amendment, which declares, “that the judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend
to any suit in law or equity commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States, by the citizens of another state, or by the citizens or subjects of a foreign state.” This amendment having been duly ratified now forms a part of the federal constitution. It is well calculated to secure the peace of the confederacy from the dangers which the former power might have produced, had any compulsory method been adopted for carrying into effect the judgment of a federal court against a state, at the suit of an individual. But whilst the propriety of the amendment is acknowledged, candor requires a further acknowledgment, that in order to render the judicial power completely efficacious, both in the federal and in the state governments, some mode ought to be provided, by which a pecuniary right, established by the judicial sentence of a court against a state, or against the government of the United States, may be enforced. It is believed, that instances might be adduced, where, although such rights have been judicially established, the claimants have not received any benefit from the judgment in their favor, because the legislature have neglected (perhaps wilfully) to provide a fund, or make the necessary appropriation required by the constitution, for the discharge of the debt. In this instance, the constitutions both of the federal and state governments seem to stand in need of reform.301 For what avails it, that an impartial tribunal have decided, that a debt is due from the public to an individual, if those who hold the purse-strings of the government, may nevertheless refuse the payment of a just debt?

But whatever objection may be made to the extent of the judicial power of the federal government; in other respects, as it is now organized, and limited by the constitution itself, by the amendments before mentioned, and by the act referred to, it seems worthy of every encomium, that has ever been pronounced upon the judiciary of Great Britain, to which it’s constitution is in no respect inferior; being, indeed, in all respects assimilated to it, with the addition of a constitutional, instead of a legal independence, only. Whatever then has been said by Baron Montesquieu, De Lolme, or Judge Blackstone, or any other writer, on the security derived to the subject from the independence of the judiciary of Great Britain, will apply at least as forcibly to that of the United States. We may go still further. In England the judiciary may be overwhelmed by a combination between the executive and the legislature. In America (according to the true theory of our constitution,) it is rendered absolutely independent of, and superior to the attempts of both, to control, or crush it: First, by the tenure of office, which is during good behavior; these words (by a long train of decisions in England, even as far back as the reign of Edward the third) in all commissions and grants, public or private, importing an office, or estate for the life of the grantee, determinable only by his death, or breach of good behavior.302 Secondly, by the independence of the judges, in respect to their salaries, which cannot be diminished.

Thirdly, by the letter of the constitution which defines and limits the powers of the several coordinate branches of the government; and the spirit of it, which forbids any attempt on the part of either to subvert the constitutional independence of the others. Lastly, by that uncontrollable authority in all cases of litigation, criminal or civil, which, from the very nature of things is exclusively vested in this department, and extends to every supposable case which can affect the life, liberty, or property of the citizens of America under the authority of the federal constitution, and laws, except in the case of an impeachment.

The American constitutions appear to be the first in which this absolute independence of the judiciary has formed one of the fundamental principles of the government. Doctor Rutherforth considers the judiciary as a branch only, of the executive authority; and such, in strictness, perhaps, it is in other countries, it’s province being to advise the executive, rather than to act independently of it: thus when Titius demands a debt, or a parcel of land of Sempronius, the judgment of the court is, it’s advice to the executive, to whom the execution of the laws appertains, to levy the debt for the plaintiff, or put him in possession of the lands which he claims, or to dismiss his demand as unjust and ill founded. So also if Titius be accused of treason, murder, or other crime; and be thereof convicted, the judgment of the court, is it’s advice in what manner he shall be punished according to law; which advice is to be carried into effect by the executive officer. Or if he be acquitted, the judgment of the court is it’s advice that he be discharged from his confinement, and from further prosecution. In this sense it is, that the judges of the courts of law in England are reckoned among the number of the king’s councils, they being his advisers in all cases where the subject matter is of a legal nature.303 But in the United States of America, the judicial power is a distinct, separate, independent, and co-ordinate branch of the government; expressly recognised as such in our state bill of rights, and constitution, and demonstrably so, likewise, by the federal constitution, from which the courts of the United States derive all their powers, in like manner as the legislative and executive departments derive theirs. The obligation which the constitution imposes upon the judiciary department to support the constitution of the United States, would be nugatory, if it were dependent upon either of the other branches of the government, or in any manner subject to their control, since such control might operate to the destruction, instead of the support, of the constitution. Nor can it escape observation, that to require such an oath on the part of the judges, on the one hand, and yet suppose them bound by acts of the legislature, which may violate the
constitution which they have sworn to support, carries with it such a degree of impiety, as well as absurdity, as no man who pays any regard to the obligations of an oath can be supposed either to contend for, or to defend.

This absolute independence of the judiciary, both of the executive and the legislative departments, which I contend is to be found, both in the letter, and spirit of our constitutions, is not less necessary to the liberty and security of the citizen, and his property, in a republican government, than in a monarchy: if in the latter, the will of the prince may be considered as likely to influence the conduct of judges created occasionally, and holding their offices only during his pleasure, more especially in cases where a criminal prosecution may be carried on by his orders, and supported by his influence; in a republic, on the other hand, the violence and malignity of party spirit, as well in the legislature, as in the executive, requires not less the intervention of a calm, temperate, upright, and independent judiciary, to prevent that violence and malignity from exerting itself “to crush in dust and ashes” all opponents to it’s tyrannical administration, or ambitious projects. Such an independence can never be perfectly attained, but by a constitutional tenure of office, equally independent of the frowns and smiles of the other branches of the government. Judges ought not only to be incapable of holding any other office at the same time, but even of appointment to any but a judicial office. For the hope of favor is always more alluring, and generally more dangerous, than the fear of offending. In England, according to the principles of the common law, a judge cannot hold any other office; and according to the practice there for more than a century, no instance can, I believe, be shown, where a judge has been appointed to any other than a judicial office, unless it be the honorary post of privy counselor, to which no emolument is attached. And even this honorary distinction is seldom conferred but upon the chief justice of the king’s bench, if I have been rightly informed.304 To this cause, not less than to the tenure of their offices during good behavior, may we ascribe that pre-eminent integrity, which amidst surrounding corruption, beams with genuine lustre from the English courts of judicature, as from the sun through surrounding clouds, and mists. To emulate both their wisdom and integrity
is an ambition worthy of the greatest characters in any country.

If we consider the nature of the judicial authority, and the manner in which it operates, we shall discover that it cannot, of itself, oppress any individual; for the executive authority must lend it’s aid in every instance where oppression can ensue from it’s decisions: whilst on the contrary, it’s decisions in favor of the citizen are carried into instantaneous effect, by delivering him from the custody and restraint of the executive officer, the moment that an acquittal is pronounced. And herein consists one of the great excellencies of our constitution: that no individual can be oppressed whilst this branch of the government remains independent, and uncorrupted; it being a necessary check upon the encroachments, or usurpations of power, by either of the other. Thus, if the legislature should pass a law dangerous to the liberties of the people, the judiciary are bound to pronounce, not only whether the party accused has been guilty of any violation of it, but whether such a law be permitted by the constitution. If, for example, a law be passed by congress, prohibiting the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates, or persuasions of a man’s own conscience or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to assemble peaceably, or to keep and bear arms; it would, in any of these cases, be the province of the judiciary to pronounce whether any such act were constitutional, or not; and if not, to acquit the accused from any penalty which might be annexed to the breach of such unconstitutional act. If an individual be persecuted by the executive authority, (as if any alien, the subject of a nation with whom the United States were at that time at peace, had been imprisoned by order of the president under the authority of the alien act, 5 Cong. c. 75) it is then the province of the judiciary to decide whether there be any law that authorizes the proceedings against him, and if there be none, to acquit him, not only of the present, but of all future prosecutions for the same cause: or if there be, then to examine it’s validity under the constitution, as before-mentioned. The power of pardon, which is vested in the executive, in it’s turn, constitutes a proper check upon the too great rigor, or abuse of power in the judiciary department. On this circumstance, however, no great
stress ought to be laid; since in criminal prosecutions, the executive is in the eye of the law, always plaintiff; and where the prosecution is carried on by it’s direction, the purity of the judiciary is the only security for the rights of the citizen. The judiciary, therefore, is that department of the government to whom the protection of the rights of the individual is by the constitution especially confided, interposing it’s shield between him and the sword of usurped authority, the darts of oppression, and the shafts of faction and violence. Let us see in what manner this protection, is thus confided to the judiciary department by the constitution.

I. First, then; the judicial power of the United States extends to all cases in law and equity, arising under the constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made by their authority. 2. No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, (and these are the objects of all rights) without due process of law; which is the peculiar province of the judiciary to furnish him with. 3. No person shall be held to answer for any crime, unless on presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service, in time of war or public danger. 4. In criminal cases the accused shall have a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district, where the crime shall be committed. 5. He shall be informed of the nature and cause of his accusation. 6. He shall be confronted by the witnesses against him; and 7, Shall have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor.305 8. He shall not be compelled to be a witness against himself. 9. He shall not be subject, for the same offense, to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb. 10. He shall have the aid of counsel for his defense. 11. His person, house, papers, and effects, shall be free from search or seizure, except upon warrants issued upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person, or things to be seized. 12. Excessive bail shall not be required of him. 13 The benefit of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be denied him, unless in case of actual invasion, or rebellion, the public safety (of which congress are to judge, and suspend the benefit accordingly) may require the suspension of that privilege generally, and not in his particular case, only. 14. Excessive fines shall not be imposed, nor unusual punishments inflicted on him. 15. His private property shall not be taken for the public use without just compensation. 16. He shall not be convicted upon any charge of treason, unless on the testimony of two witnesses, at least, to the same overt act, or on confession in open court. In all these respects, the constitution, by a positive injunction, prescribes the duty of the judiciary department;306 extending it’s powers, on the one hand, so far as to arrest the hand of oppression from any other quarter; and on the other prescribing limits to it’s authority, which if violated would be good cause of impeachment, and of removal from office. Thus if the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus should be suspended by congress, when there was neither an invasion, nor rebellion in the United States, it would be the duty of the judiciary, nevertheless, to grant the writ, because the act of suspension in that case, being contrary to the express terms of the constitution, would be void. On the other hand, if the benefit of the writ of habeas corpus, should be granted to any person, contrary to the provisions of an act for suspending it, during the time of an invasion or rebellion, this would be a good ground for impeaching a judge who should conduct himself in that manner. So, if a judge were to instruct a jury upon the trial of a person for treason, that he might be convicted upon the testimony of a single witness, if such instruction were advisedly, and corruptly given, (and not the mere effect of mistake and misapprehension) it would furnish a good ground for impeachment, and removal of such judge from his office. And any other gross misconduct of a judge in the execution of his office may be punished in like manner.

That absolute independence of the judiciary, for which we contend is not, then, incompatible with the strictest responsibility; (for a judge is no more exempt from it than any other servant of the people, according to the true principles of the constitution;) but such an independence of the other co-ordinate branches of the government as seems absolutely necessary to secure to them the free exercise of their constitutional functions, without the hope of pleasing, or the fear of offending. And, as from the natural feebleness of the judiciary it is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by it’s coordinate branches, who have the custody of the purse and sword of the confederacy; and as nothing can contribute so much to it’s firmness and independence as permanancy in office, this quality therefore may be justly regarded as an indispensable ingredient in it’s constitution; and in great measure as the citadel of the public justice and the public security.307 Nor was it imagined that there was more than one opinion, upon this subject, in the United States, until a recent event proved the contrary.308 It was supposed that there could not be a doubt that those tribunals in which justice is to be dispensed according to the constitution and laws of the confederacy; in which life, liberty and property are to be decided upon; in which questions might arise as to the constitutional powers of the executive, or the constitutional obligation of an act of the legislature; and in the decision of which the judges might find themselves constrained by duty, and, by their oaths, to pronounce against the authority of either, should be stable and permanent; and not dependent upon the will of the executive or legislature, or both, for their existence. That without this degree of permanence, the tenure of office during good behavior, could not secure to that department the necessary firmness to meet unshaken every question, and to decide as justice and the constitution should dictate without regard to consequences. These considerations induced an opinion which it was presumed was general, if not universal, that the power
vested in congress to erect from time to time, tribunals inferior to the supreme court, did not authorize them, at pleasure, to demolish them. Being built upon the rock of the constitution, their foundations were supposed to partake of it’s permanancy, and to be equally incapable of being shaken by the other branches of the government. But a different construction of the constitution has lately prevailed; it has been determined that a power to ordain and establish from time to time, carries with it a discretionary power to discontinue, or demolish. That although the tenure of office be, during good behavior, this does not prevent the separation of the office from the officer, by putting down the office; but only secures to the officer his station, upon the terms of good behavior, so long as the office itself remains…. Painful indeed is the remark, that this interpretation seems calculated to subvert one of the fundamental pillars of free governments, and to have laid the foundation of one of the most dangerous political schisms that has ever happened in the United States of America.

In all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be a party, the supreme court of the United States shall have original jurisdiction. This, I presume, was intended to give the greater solemnity as as well as dispatch to the decision of such important cases, by taking away all unnecessary delays, by appeal. But congress appears to have considered, that it was not necessary that the supreme court should have original jurisdiction, but that it might, in the discretion of congress, be invested with it in those cases.309 By the constitution, originally, the supreme court might have had appellate jurisdiction, both as to law and fact, in all cases. But, the ninth article of amendments provides that no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rule of the common law. A provision which has removed one of the most powerful objections made to this department.

The organization of the federal courts will form the subject of a future note; in which also will be attempted to give the student a view of the state courts.


 293.    The papers in the Federalist, on the subject of the judiciary of the United States, are, in general, equal to any that will be found in that publication. See vol. 1. p. 140, and vol. 2, p. 290, &c.
 294.    C. U. S. Art. 2. Sec. 2. Art. 3. Sec. 1.
 295.    C. U. S. Att. 3. Sec. 2.
 296.    Centinel, p. 15.
 297.    See 3 Blacks. Com. p. 41, 55.
 298.    Amendments to C. U. S. Art. 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.
 299.    The several conventions of Massachussetts, New Hampshire, Rhode-Island, New York, Virginia, and North Carolina, proposed amendments in this respect.
 300.    Massachussetts, Virginia, and Georgia, were sued by individuals in the federal courts.
 301.    By the constitution of the United States, “no money can be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law. How shall an individual having a judgment against the United States, in his favour, recover his money, if the legislature chuse to keep him out of it? The case seems to be equally as bad in the state governments.
 302.    3 Cess 43. Edw. 3. — 3 Inst. 117. The barons of the exchequer were the only judges in Engl and, who, at the time Sir Edward Coke wrote, held their office during good behaviour, or for life. The student will likewise find the import of these words solemnly argued and decided, by that great man Lord Chief Justice Holt, and his associates; 1 Shower’s Reports, 426, 506, to 536, 557.Their judgment was affirmed in parliament. Shower’s Cases in Parliament, 158.
 303.    1 Blacks. Com. 229. 1 Inst. 110. 3 Inst. 125.
 304.    Much is it to be regretted that a similar conduct towards the judges of the courts of the United States, has not prevailed in the federal government. Already have we seen two chief justices of the United States, whose duties cannot, certainly, be performed in foreign parts, appointed envoys to distant nations, and still holding their offices in the supreme court of the federal government; offices altogether incompatible, yet held at the same time in manifest violation of every constitutional principle. For surely nothing is more incompatible with the nature of the federal government, than to suppose an office of such high trust and responsibility to have been intended as a sine cure; much less that it could have been intended as the means of extending executive influence, or of shielding the president against the effect of an impeachment. For what could more effectually strengthen the hands of an usurping president, than the power of sending into an honourable exile, the very officer whom the constitution expressly requires to preside at his trial, in case of his impeachment? To preserve the lustre of judicial purity, perfectly unsullied, it seems necessary, by an express amendment of the constitution, to disqualify the federal judges from appointment to any other than a judicial office; since such appointments have a natural tendency to excite hopes, and secure compliance, from the prospect or expectation of additional emolument, accumulated honours, or greater pre-eminence of station.
 305.    On the trial of Mr. Thomas Cooper, in the federal circuit court in Pennsylvania, for a libel against the president of the United States, under the sedition law, it is said, that Mr. Cooper applied to the court for a subpoena to summon the president as a witness in his behalf, and that the court refused to grant one. Upon what principle the application was refused, (notwithstanding this article) I have never been able to obtain satisfactory information. The case was certainly delicate, and might have been perplexing.
 306.    See C. U. S. Art. 3. Art. 1. §. 9. Amendments to C. U. S. Art. 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.
 307.    Federalist, vol. 2 No. 78.
 308.    See the act of 7 Cong. repealing the act of the preceeding congress for the more convenient organization of the courts of the United States, and the debates thereon.
 309.    L. U. S. 1 Cong. 1 Sess. c. 20. Sect. 13. In the case of Mr. Ravara the Genoese consul, who pleaded to the jurisdiction of the circuit court, the court overruled his plea. Wilson and Peters judges, contra Iredel judge, who was for sustaining it. 2. Dallas’s Reports, 297.