Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

From the colonial system of legislatures by which all the powers of government were at times exercised to the modern American State, with its professed division of them into three parts, and assignment of each to a distinct department, was a long step.

So far as the United States were concerned, the weakness of the government under the Articles of Confederation had been universally acknowledged and was generally thought to come in part from throwing whatever powers the States had granted, in a mass, into the hands of the Continental Congress. Nevertheless, the Constitution of the United States is not framed upon the principles of a strict tripartite division. It places the executive power in the hands of the President, all the legislative powers which were granted by it in Congress, and the judicial power in certain courts; but it does not follow the earlier State Constitutions in declaring that whatever was vested in either of these three depositaries was and must always be different in kind from that vested in any other of them.

On this point Virginia set the fashion, but the sonorous phrase of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 is the most familiar, in its declaration (Part the First, Art. XXX) that "in the government of this commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them; the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them; the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them; to the end it may be a government of laws, and not of men."[Footnote: The last declaration of purpose was taken from Harrington's _Oceana_, in which it is said that while a monarchy is an empire of men, "a commonwealth is an empire of laws and not of men." Works, London ed., 35, 42, 224.]

It was from an unwillingness to commit themselves to such a principle that the people of Connecticut and Rhode Island preferred for many years to be governed in the old way by their legislatures, without a written constitution. During this period, the General Assembly of Connecticut repeatedly exercised the power of setting aside judgments of courts, and its right to do so was sustained by the Supreme Court of the United States.[Footnote: Calder _v._ Bull, 2 Root's Reports, 350; 3 Dallas' Reports, 386.]

The courts of the United States were called upon at an early day to determine how far Congress could invest them with functions that were not judicial or not to be performed in a judicial manner. An act was passed requiring the Circuit Courts to pass upon claims for invalid pensions, their decisions to be subject to review by Congress. The performance of this duty was declined, and the attempt to put a judgment of a court under the control of the legislature made the refusal so plainly proper that the act was repealed at the next session.[Footnote: Hayburn's Case, 2 Dallas' Reports, 409.]

It was easier for the United States to maintain from the first this general scheme for the division of power than for the early States. Their people had grown up under too different a plan of government. It had become so familiar to them that they could hardly believe that it had been abolished. Tradition for them interpreted their new Constitutions and overmastered them. The State legislatures therefore continued for a time to claim some control over the judiciary, or at least a right to criticise and censure its doings.[Footnote: See Chap. VII.]

In many of our State Constitutions, after providing for a distribution of powers between three separate departments, instead of absolutely prohibiting any of them from exercising any power properly belonging to either of the others, it is declared that this shall not be done, except as may be expressly allowed in subsequent articles.

Such a declaration was proposed in the draft of the Constitution of Connecticut, reported to the convention which framed it in 1818; but on objection it was struck out.[Footnote: Journal of the Constitutional Convention of Connecticut, pp. 78, 55.] It was thought better to leave the relations of the departments to each other to be worked out in practice, and for nearly eighty years afterward the legislature continued to exercise some judicial power. It sometimes gave equitable relief to carry out a charitable purpose in a will, which would otherwise fail. It interfered repeatedly in probate proceedings. It released sureties in judicial recognizances. It set aside judgments. [Footnote: Wheeler's Appeal, 45 Connecticut Reports, 306, 315; Stanley _v._ Colt, 5 Wallace's Reports, 119.] A decision of the Supreme Court of Errors sanctioned the practice;[Footnote: Starr _v._ Pease, 8 Conn. Reports, 541, 547.] but in 1898 the court overruled its former opinion, and held that as the three departments were made separate and distinct, it needed no express constitutional declaration to prevent either from invading the province of the other, and so that no power not judicial in its nature could be conferred upon the courts.[Footnote: Norwalk Street Railway Company's Appeal, 69 Conn. Reports, 576; 37 Atlantic Reporter, 1080.]

But may not a power be judicial in its nature and yet not wholly so?

It is practically impossible to establish in every instance a plain line of demarcation between legislative, executive and judicial functions.

Courts, for instance, make rules of practice. In one sense this is a judicial act, because it is one appropriate for the judiciary. In another point of view it is an act of legislation. In nothing does it resemble the act of judging a litigated cause.

Impeachments are both political and judicial proceedings, but American constitutions leave them wholly to the legislative department.

Franchises to exist as an artificial person are the proper subjects of legislative grant, but with the growing insistence in our Constitutions on absolute equality of right, they are now almost everywhere given only by general laws. Such a law will offer incorporation for certain purposes to any who choose to avail themselves of the privilege by fulfilling certain conditions and filing certain papers in a public office. But what shall be the nature of this office, and who shall decide whether these conditions have been fulfilled and these papers filed?  The legislature may select an executive, a legislative, or a judicial office. It may entrust this power of decision to an executive, a legislative, or a judicial officer. It has, in fact, in some States, entrusted it to a court, and authorized it, if it decided in favor of those claiming incorporation, not only to record the decision, but to issue the paper which shows that they are entitled to possess and enjoy the franchise.

It is safe to assert that in no State are the functions of the courts purely judicial. Many belonging to the administration of the methods of political government are in all intrusted to judicial officers either originally or by way of review. Some of these concern such matters of internal police, as the enforcement of laws to preserve the public health or to regulate the sale of intoxicating liquors, and the establishment and repair of highways.[Footnote: Application of Cooper, 22 New York Reports, 67, 82, 84; Norwalk Street Railway Company's Appeal, 69 Conn. Reports, 576; 37 Atlantic Reporter, 1080; Bradley _v._ New Haven, 73 Connecticut Reports, 646; 48 Atlantic Reporter, 960; Upshur County _v._ Rich, 135 U. S. Reports, 467, 477; Janvrin _v._ Revere Water Co., 174 Mass. Rep. 514; 55 North Eastern Rep. 381.] Instead of creating a system of bureaus and prefects, we have adhered to the English plan of administering local and county concerns through justices of the peace, courts of quarter-sessions, and county or parish courts.[Footnote: See Maitland, "Justice and Police," 85.] Of the affairs committed to such authorities some pertain to the conduct of elections, and courts are frequently empowered to appoint election officers or clerks, because it is felt that thus a wise impartiality in selection can best be attained.[Footnote: People _v._ Hoffman, 116 Illinois Reports, 587; 5 Northeastern Reporter, 596; 56 American Reports, 793; _Ex parte_ Siebold, 100 U. S. Reports, 371, 397.]

It is vital to the proper working of government under a written constitution that these constitutional restrictions on the powers of the courts should not be too strictly interpreted. Every step in the progress of civilization makes this the more obvious. No absolute trinity of governmental form can be maintained in human society, as the relations of each individual to his fellows, and of the State to all, become, and necessarily become, more numerous and complicated. In every State that department which in practice proves the strongest will push its jurisdiction furthest.

It may be said, in view of its now established power to decide between higher and lower forms of law,[Footnote: See Chap. VII.] that the judiciary has proved the strongest. The legislature, as has been stated, have found it a convenient depositary of many quasi-legislative and quasi-executive functions, and this also has largely increased its power.

The theory of the French philosophers that all the powers of government could be divided into three parts, each bearing a name descriptive only of itself, is not supported by the practical experience of Americans. There are functions that might as well be assigned to one of these parts as to another, or made into a fourth and called administrative.[Footnote: Under authority of her present Constitution, Virginia in 1904 organized a State Commission for the Supervision of Corporations, which has both judicial and administrative functions.]

The Constitution of the United States recognizes this in effect. It makes the Senate an executive council, as well as a legislative chamber. It allows Congress to vest the appointment of any inferior officers in the courts (Art. II, Sec. 3). In practice this power has been freely used.

The Supreme Court of the United States has had occasion to consider this question in connection with the statutes defining the jurisdiction of the Circuit Courts. It extends to certain "suits." But what is a suit?  It is not necessarily a proceeding at common law or in equity or admiralty. It may be a statutory process. "Even," they say, "an appeal from an assessment, if referred to a court and jury, or merely to a court, to be proceeded in according to judicial methods, may become a suit within the act of Congress."[Footnote: Upshur County _v._ Rich, 135 U. S. Reports, 467, 473.] So in regard to a proceeding by the government to take land for public use on payment of due compensation, they observe that "the general rule with regard to cases of this sort is, that the initial proceeding of appraisement by commissioners is an administrative proceeding, and not a suit; but that if an appeal is taken to a court, and a litigation is there instituted between parties, then it becomes a suit within the meaning of this act of Congress."[Footnote: _Ibid_., 475.]

In one point of considerable importance express constitutional provisions generally narrow the jurisdiction of American, as compared with English courts. Each house of the legislature is made the final judge of the returns and qualifications of its members. In England, election contests as to a seat in the House of Commons has been made by Act of Parliament the subject of judicial determination. This avoids partizan decisions and is so far good. It diminishes, however, the independence of the legislative house in which the seat is contested. This is jealously guarded by our traditions as well as our Constitutions. The practice of wearing hats during the sessions of the House of Commons was an expression of the early feeling of the English Commons on this subject. They would not uncover before speaker or king. In some of the early American legislatures the same thing was done. Hats were occasionally worn in the House of Representatives at Washington as late as the second quarter of the nineteenth century.[Footnote: Hunt, "Life of Edward Livingston," 301. They were worn in the Continental Congress on occasions of ceremony. McMaster, "History of the People of the United States," I, 105.]

On the other hand, American courts interfere more readily than the English to protect a citizen from arrest by legislative authority. Each house of the British parliament has large inherited powers over those who may treat it with contempt. Each house of an American legislature has some powers of this description, but they are far narrower ones.[Footnote: Kilbourn _v._ Thompson, 103 U. S. Reports, 168.]