Skip to main content

The Annenberg Guide to the United States Constitution

Article III, Section 2

The Text

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;-]8 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.]9

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 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.

8 Modified by Amendment XI.

9 Modified by Amendment XI.

The Meaning

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.