Federalist No.80

The Powers Of The Judiciary

Wednesday, May 28, 1788

Alexander Hamilton

Article III, Section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution:

The judicial Power shall extend 1to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and 2 Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls; 3 to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; 4 to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party; 5 to Controversies between two or more States;—between a State and Citizens of another State; —between Citizens of different States, 6 between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and 7 between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.


This paper concerns the powers of the federal court and refers to Article III, Section 2, Clause 1, which is reproduced above. I have colour-coded sections of the clause for ease of use and have introduced my own numbers into it for the purposes of reconciling this section of the Constitution with Hamilton’s discussion. When I refer to these numbers below, I will prefix them with ‘My No.’, as in ‘My No.1’, for example, which refers to the section represented in red.


This paper is broadly divided into two sections. The first section is an attempt to explain the different functions of the federal court with justifications as to why it is not appropriate for State courts to deal with these functions. Hamilton labelled each of these discussions first point, second point and so on, so I have used this nomenclature in my headings below. The second section of the paper quotes the above extract from the Constitution verbatim and then attempts to link each section of the Constitution I have enumerated (based on Hamilton’s own explanation) with the points from the first half of the paper. In linking these sections of the Constitution with his points, one finds that Hamilton has not always made his points in the same order as the Constitution is written, which results in an awkward explanation at the end of the paper.


The following is structured on how Hamilton divides the proper objects of the federal judicial power into six key points:

First Point (referring to My No.1)


State and Federal powers cannot overlap. For this reason, States are prevented from doing things like imposing import duties and printing money. Hamilton says there are only two ways to handle this, either by preventing States by a negative law to act in certain ways, or by having federal courts overrule State courts when they rule in contravention to the articles of Union. The Constitution provides for the limitation of State powers.

Second Point (referring to My No.1 again)


The need for uniformity in laws and their interpretation means a federal court is required.

Third Point (referring to My No.5)


Conflict between a nation and a citizen or citizens can only be tried at the federal level.

Fourth Point (Hamilton refers this argument to My No.3), but I think that is a mistake. It more properly applies to My No.5)


Hamilton concisely sums up the issue at stake: that the peace of the whole ought not to be left at the disposal of a part. In other words, matters of national importance cannot be left to State courts. The issue of consistency is one reason. A second reason concerns the possibility that State legislation may differ from State to State. In the case of foreigners coming into conflict with the State, there is always the possibility that national conflict might arise from the proceedings of a court case. The possibility that State legislation might conflict with foreign treaties exacerbates this problem, along with the possibility that conflict might extend to a decision as to which State laws to prefer. For these reasons, a federal court is best suited to dealing with foreigners.


The possibility of conflict also exists in disputes between States. Hamilton later asserts a maxim which is also true in this circumstance: No man ought certainly to be a judge in his own cause. The possibility that State courts would be impartial in State disputes could not be guaranteed, and therefore the possibility of armed conflict arising could not be discounted. Hamilton uses the example of the private wars that racked German States prior to the institution of an Imperial Chamber towards the end of the fifteenth century. State conflicts might involve territorial disputes, or fraudulent laws.

Fifth Point (Hamilton refers to My No.4, but his wording surely implies My No.3 as well)


Hamilton argues that issues relating to maritime causes properly fall with the jurisdiction of the federal court since maritime issues often relate to laws of other nations, and therefore affect the rights of foreigners (thereby falling within the consideration of public peace).

Sixth Point (referring to My No.6)


In cases where conflict arises between State and individuals concerning the granting of land, Hamilton determines that the State court could hardly be deemed to be unbiased. This applies to instances where citizens are in conflict either with their own State or another.


Hamilton briefly discusses the wording that is identified by My No.7 of the Constitutional extract. Hamilton states that this is covered under his argument in his fourth point.


In the second half of the paper, Hamilton also offers an explanation concerning wording My No.1, specifically the difference between laws of the Unite States and the Constitution. Hamilton says that States are prohibited from making certain laws which are the express domain of the federal Constitution. The example of import duties and the printing of money has already been used, so he explains that any controversy arising from laws such as these arise from the Constitution, which laws falling under the prevue of the States would be ‘Laws of the United States’.


A second discussion in this section of the paper concerns the word ‘equity’ in the same part of the clause from the Constitution. ‘Equity’ refers to what is fair in transactions and law, not necessarily what is strictly legal, meaning a deal might be legal but its effects can also be unfair. Different States of the time had different legal attitudes to equity, so that land claims under the grants of different States might involve different notions of equity, which a federal court might be asked to resolve. However, the 11th Amendment removed the federal court’s ability to act in these matters.

16 December 2019