Signed in convention September 17, 1787. Ratified June 21, 1788. A portion of Article III, Section 2, was changed by the 11th Amendment.
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.
SECTION. 2. The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall 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;--to Controversies 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.
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.
The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment; shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.
SECTION. 3. Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.
The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.
Article III establishes the federal court system. The first section creates the U.S. Supreme Court as the federal system’s highest court. The Supreme Court has final say on matters of federal law that come before it. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court has nine justices who are appointed by the president with the approval of the Senate.
Congress has the power to create and organize the lower federal courts. Today, there are lower federal courts in every state. A case is filed and tried in the federal district courts and in some specialty courts, such as admiralty or bankruptcy courts. The trial courts look at the facts of the case and decide guilt or innocence or which side is right in an argument or dispute. The courts of appeal hear appeals of the losing parties. The appellate courts look at whether the trial was fair, whether the process followed the rules, and whether the law was correctly applied.
To ensure that they are insulated from political influence, federal judges are appointed for life as long as they are on “good behavior.” This generally means for as long as they want the job or until they are impeached for committing a serious crime. In addition, the Constitution specifies that Congress cannot cut a judge’s pay. This prevents members of Congress from punishing a judge when they do not like one of his or her decisions.
The federal courts will decide arguments over how to interpret the Constitution, all laws passed by Congress, and our nation’s rights and responsibilities in agreements with other nations. In addition, federal courts can hear disputes that may arise between states, between citizens of different states, and between states and the federal government.
In 1803, in the case of Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Marshall, interpreted Article III and Article VI to give the federal courts final say over the meaning of the federal Constitution and federal laws and the power to order state and federal officials to comply with its rulings. The federal courts can make decisions only on cases that are brought to them by a person who is actually affected by the law. Federal courts are not allowed to create cases on their own, even if they believe a law is unconstitutional, nor are they allowed to rule on hypothetical scenarios.
Almost all federal cases start in federal district courts, where motions are decided and trials held. The cases are then heard on appeal by the federal courts of appeal and then by the Supreme Court if four justices of the nine-member court decide to hear the case. Congress can limit the power of the appeals courts by changing the rules about which cases can be appealed. State cases that involve an issue of federal law can also be heard by the Supreme Court after the highest court in the state rules (or refuses to rule) in the case. The Supreme Court accepts only a small number of cases for review, typically around 80 cases each year. In a small number of lawsuits — those involving ambassadors, public ministers and consuls, or where a state is a party — the Supreme Court is the first court to hear the case.
The federal courts also have final say over guilt or innocence in federal criminal cases. A defendant in a criminal case, except impeachment, has a right to have his or her case heard by a jury in the state where the crime occurred.
Treason is the only crime specifically defined in the Constitution. According to Article III, Section 3, a person is guilty of treason if he or she goes to war against the United States or gives “aid or comfort” to an enemy. He or she does not have to physically pick up a weapon and fight in combat against U.S. troops. Actively helping the enemy by passing along classified information or supplying weapons, for example, can lead to charges of treason.
Vocal opposition to a U.S. war effort through protest and demonstration, however, is protected by the free speech clause in the First Amendment. A conviction of treason must be based either on an admission of guilt in open court or on the testimony of two witnesses.
Congress may set the punishment, but it must be directed only at the guilty person and not at his or her friends or family if they were not involved in the crime.
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The duty of the judicial branch is to interpret the laws. Or, in the words of Chief Justice John Marshall, “to say what the law is.” Article III has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to give the judiciary the power to declare acts of the president or Congress unconstitutional. This power, known as judicial review, gives American courts much more influence than in other countries.
Article III is the shortest, and least specific, of the constitutional provisions establishing the three branches of government. The framers of the Constitution spent far less time—and debate—on the judiciary than Congress or the president. Yet the power of unelected judges to overturn laws in a democracy has become one of the most controversial issues in American government.
Linda R. Monk, J.D., is a constitutional scholar, journalist, and nationally award-winning author. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she twice received the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, its highest honor for law-related media. Her books include The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution, Ordinary Americans: U.S. History Through the Eyes of Everyday People, and The Bill of Rights: A User’s Guide. For more than 25 years, Dr. Monk has written commentary for newspapers nationwide, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, and Huffington Post. In addition, she has appeared on MSNBC, C-SPAN, and NPR.