The federal judiciary has arguably become the most powerful branch of the general government. Opinions issued by nine politically connected lawyers have redefined marriage throughout the entire United States, authorized the internment of American citizens and dictated what kinds of decorations cities can display in their parks.
Federal courts were never intended to wield this kind of power and control. In Federalist #78, Alexander Hamilton argued that judiciary would operate as the weakest branch of the federal government.
Whoever attentively considers the different departments of power must perceive, that, in a government in which they are separated from each other, the judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them. The Executive not only dispenses the honors, but holds the sword of the community. The legislature not only commands the purse, but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated. The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments. This simple view of the matter suggests several important consequences. It proves incontestably, that the judiciary is beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments of power.”
The judiciary has a very specific role – to judge cases – sometimes referred as “controversies.” The two words were used interchangeably in the founding era.
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.)
This power was further limited by the 11th Amendment.
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 Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.”
If an issue isn’t a proper judicial “case,” the federal judiciary does not have any jurisdiction. It has no authority to issue advisory opinions, or make judgments outside the narrow scope of a given case. During the Philadelphia Convention, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina submitted a proposal to require the Supreme Court to issue advisory opinions at the request of the president or Congress. The convention rejected this proposal.
Technically, a ruling only binds the parties to the case, and it can only be applied within contexts identical to the facts of the controversy. One can certainly draw broader conclusions from a ruling, but it doesn’t automatically apply to all people at all times. But courts tend to follow precedent, and future judges won’t generally overturn “settled law,” even when the precedent strays significantly from the Constitution as ratified.
Congress wields a great deal of power over the federal courts. The Constitution only directly establishes a Supreme Court. Congress has the authority to “ordain and establish” inferior courts. In fact, Congress could do away with the entire existing district and appellate court system. It also has the authority to determine the number of justices on the Supreme Court.
Additionally, Congress has the power to limit the federal courts’ jurisdiction. The Constitution delegates “appellate jurisdiction … with such Excep