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Can Congress Overturn a Federal Court Decision?

Can Congress use legislation to overrule the Supreme Court or other federal courts? The Constitution gives the courts the authority to render final judgments. Actions by Congress to change that final decision would be a violation of the separation of powers.

What Happens If Congress Interferes with the Courts?

United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation

As judicial power is the authority to render dispositive judgments, Congress violates the separation of powers when it purports to alter final judgments of Article III courts.1 One such instance arose when the Court unexpectedly recognized a statute of limitations for certain securities actions that was shorter than what had been recognized in many jurisdictions, resulting in the dismissal of several suits, which then become final because they were not appealed. Congress subsequently enacted a statute that, though not changing the limitations period prospectively, retroactively extended the time for suits that had been dismissed and provided for the reopening of these final judgments. In Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc.,2 the Court invalidated the statute, holding it impermissible for Congress to disturb a final judgment. "Having achieved finality, . . . a judicial decision becomes the last word of the judicial department with regard to a particular case or controversy, and Congress may not declare by retroactive legislation that the law applicable to that very case was something other than what the courts said it was."3 In Miller v. French,4 by contrast, the Court ruled that the Prison Litigation Reform Act's automatic stay of ongoing injunctions remedying violations of prisoners' rights did not amount to an unconstitutional legislative revision of a final judgment. Rather, the automatic stay merely altered the "prospective effect" of injunctions, and it is well established that such prospective relief "remains subject to alteration due to changes in the underlying law."5

Attorney General Randolph, upon the refusal of the circuit courts to act under the new statute, filed a motion for mandamus in the Supreme Court to direct the Circuit Court in Pennsylvania to proceed on a petition filed by one Hayburn seeking a pension. Although the Court heard argument, it put off decision until the next term, presumably because Congress was already acting to delete the objectionable features of the act. Upon enactment of the new law, the Court dismissed the action.6 Although the Court's opinion contained little analysis, Hayburn's Case has since been cited by the Court to reject efforts to give it and the lower federal courts jurisdiction over cases in which judgment would be subject to executive or legislative revision.7 Thus, in a 1948 case, the Court held that an order of the Civil Aeronautics Board denying to a citizen air carrier a certificate of convenience and necessity for an overseas and foreign air route was, despite statutory language to the contrary, not reviewable by the courts. Because Congress had also deemed such an order subject to discretionary review and revision by the President, the lower court found, and the Supreme Court affirmed, that the courts did not have the authority to review the President's decision. While the lower Court had then attempted to reconcile the statutory scheme by permitting presidential review of the order after judicial review, the Court rejected this interpretation. "[I]f the President may completely disregard the judgment of the court, it would be only because it is one the courts were not authorized to render. Judgments within the powers vested in courts by the Judiciary Article of the Constitution may not lawfully be revised, overturned or refused faith and credit by another Department of Government."8

Special Case: The Federal Sentencing Commission

Passing on the constitutionality of the establishment of the Sentencing Commission as an "independent" body in the judicial branch, the Court acknowledged that the Commission is not a court and does not exercise judicial power. Rather, its function is to promulgate binding sentencing guidelines for federal courts. It acts, therefore, legislatively, and its membership of seven is composed of three judges and three nonjudges. But the standard of constitutionality, the Court held, is whether the entity exercises powers that are more appropriately performed by another branch or that undermine the integrity of the judiciary. Because the imposition of sentences is a function traditionally exercised within congressionally prescribed limits by federal judges, the Court found the functions of the Commission could be located in the judicial branch. Nor did the performance of its functions contribute, in any meaningful way, to a weakening of the judiciary or aggrandizement of power, the Court observed.9

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  1. Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., 514 U.S. 211, 218–19 (1995). The Court was careful to delineate the difference between attempting to alter a final judgment, one rendered by a court and either not appealed or affirmed on appeal, and legislatively amending a statute so as to change the law as it existed at the time a court issued a decision that was on appeal or otherwise still alive at the time a federal court reviewed the determination below. A court must apply the law as revised when it considers the prior interpretation. Id. at 226–27. Article III creates or authorizes Congress to create not a collection of unconnected courts, but a judicial department composed of "inferior courts" and "one Supreme Court." "Within that hierarchy, the decision of an inferior court is not (unless the time for appeal has expired) the final word of the department as a whole." Id. at 227.
  2. 514 U.S. 211 (1995).
  3. 514 U.S. at 227 (emphasis supplied by Court).
  4. 530 U.S. 327 (2000).
  5. 530 U.S. at 344.
  6. Hayburn's Case, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 409 (1792). The new pension law was the Act of February 28, 1793, 1 Stat. 324. The reason for the Court's inaction may, on the other hand, have been doubt about the proper role of the Attorney General in the matter, an issue raised in the opinion. See Marcus & Teir, Hayburn's Case: A Misinterpretation of Precedent, 1988 Wis. L. Rev. 4; Bloch, The Early Role of the Attorney General in Our Constitutional Scheme: In the Beginning There was Pragmatism, 1989 Duke L. J. 561, 590–618. Notice the Court's discussion in Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., 514 U.S. 211, 218, 225–26 (1995).
  7. See United States v. Ferreira, 54 U.S. (13 How.) 40 (1852)Gordon v. United States, 69 U.S. (2 Wall.) 561 (1865)In re Sanborn, 148 U.S. 222 (1893)cf. McGrath v. Kritensen, 340 U.S. 162, 167–168 (1950).
  8. Chicago & S. Air Lines v. Waterman S.S. Corp., 333 U.S. 103, 113 (1948).
  9. Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361, 384–97 (1989). Clearly, some of the powers vested in the Special Division of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit under the Ethics in Government Act in respect to the independent counsel were administrative, but because the major nonjudicial power, the appointment of the independent counsel, was specifically authorized in the appointments clause, the additional powers were miscellaneous and could be lodged there by Congress. Implicit in the Court's analysis was the principle that a line exists that Congress may not cross. Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654, 677–685 (1988).



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