Under Article III Section 2 Clause 2, Congress has the power to limit the Supreme Courts power:

In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be 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.

But to what extent? Can they reverse Supreme Court decisions? Can they eliminate their power totally?


1 Answer 1


It extends somewhat arbitrarily to the appellate jurisdiction (but not original jurisdiction) of SCOTUS, and to all forms of jurisdiction in all other federal courts. SCOTUS has held that they retain the right to decide if the act that strips jurisdiction from a court is itself constitutional, but if they decide it is then that's pretty much the end of the story. However, it has remained unclear exactly what would constitute an unconstitutional stripping of jurisdiction.

United States v. Klein established the two typical restrictions on jurisdiction stripping*. On the one hand, they held that the law in question was unconstitutional as it infringed upon the power of the Executive by effectively nullifying certain Presidential pardons. So jurisdiction stripping can't be done as a means to nullify and deny other constitutional protections and structures. This was reinforced in Boumediene v. Bush, which ruled a jurisdiction stripping law unconstitutional on the grounds that it created a denial of the writ of habeas corpus, which the constitution elsewhere guarantees. The second argument in Klein, also under separation of powers, but this time with regards to the judiciary, was that a law which effectively dictates how a court is to rule/decide is invalid ("in particular case Y a court must rule in favor of X", say), but as they are okay with a law that dictates procedures (rather than decisions) it tends to be relatively easy to circumvent this and achieve much the same end. A law which leaves no other choice but for the court to rule in favor of X is generally okay, provided it does not simply command the court to rule that way but rather leaves it no other options. Jurisdiction stripping is one such way to do this, and Congress has used jurisdiction stripping to essentially force the Judiciary's hand on a number of active cases throughout history.

The line remains a bit unclear, however, because the courts have also upheld laws which assert a lack of jurisdiction, and also dictate that a court must then dismiss such a case for lack of jurisdiction. The latter would seem to be dictating a rule of decision on the court, but it was ultimately held as a harmless reiteration that a court constitutionally requires a Congressional grant of jurisdiction. They have also upheld the power of Congress to amend existing laws in ways which affect active cases, or laws which dictate that the courts must apply particular (new) laws and legal standards to certain classes of cases, including active ones, even if such changes would substantively alter how the court could/would rule (potentially even making the outcome completely determined). As such Congress can usually get away with (effectively) dictating how a court must decide a specific case via jurisdiction stripping (indeed, even with an act that can only ever possibly affect one current case, either by implication or express declaration), provided it does so by providing new legal standards and procedures to the courts, rather than simply and only dictating the decision(s). In Patchak v. Zinke, from 2018, a plurality of the court held that Congress unconstitutionally infringes on the judiciary when it compels findings or results under old law, but does not do so (and is in compliance with Article III) when it simply changes the law (even retroactively). That this recent case had no proper majority opinion and instead a plurality, several concurrences, and a dissent, reinforces the difficulty in determining exactly what the constitutional limits on jurisdiction stripping are.

*Some scholars find this decision ambiguous, as it presents two possible vectors for invalidation without clearly asserting if one or both was the actual basis a majority of the court used to do so. In Patchak v. Zinke, mentioned near the end of this answer, Justice Thomas and a plurality of justices seemed to be of the opinion that the actual problem was the transgression on the Executive's pardon power.

  • To make this a bit more concrete, I would imagine an extreme hypothetical: Congress establishes a "High Court of the United States," which is formally inferior to the Supreme Court and superior to all of the Circuit Courts, and then says that the Supreme Court only has jurisdiction over appeals from the High Court to the extent that they pertain to (say) parking tickets issued within the District of Columbia. Can they do something like that?
    – Kevin
    Mar 22, 2021 at 18:53
  • @Kevin In principle yes, unless SCOTUS itself rules that's unconstitutional. The existence and jurisdiction of the federal judiciary has always been the product of the political calculus of Congress. The constitution only mandates that SCOTUS exists and be able to address the issues covered by its original jurisdiction (and perhaps whatever else it is that SCOTUS holds is so essential and implicit to the constitution as to fall under its purview), everything else is subject to whatever Congress determines to be in the best interests of the people. Mar 22, 2021 at 21:02

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .