The First State Celebrates Constitution Day 2006

The Honorable Sue L. Robinson

photo   of The Honorable Sue L. Robinson

The Honorable Sue L. Robinson, Chief Judge, The United States District Court for the District of Delaware

Federal Courts - The Founding Fathers' Final Check

I am Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Delaware, the Federal trial court in the State of Delaware. When people hear that I am a judge, their first question is, "How do you like the new courthouse?" I always reply, politely, that the "new" courthouse is the State Courthouse for State Judges. Few people follow up this initial conversation with inquiries about the Federal Courts, so I intend to take advantage of this opportunity to address the topic, by way of reviewing the United States Constitution.

Article III of the Constitution provides that "[t]he judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." The District Court in Delaware was established by the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789. Since then, the 1. Federalist Paper No. 79 (Alexander Hamilton). District Court has had only 23 judges appointed to serve on its bench. Federal Judges are appointed by the President; the appointments are confirmed by the Senate. Once appointed, Federal Judges "hold their Offices during good Behavior" and "receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office." 2. Federalist Paper No. 47 (James Madison). Although the diminishing effects of inflation were actually discussed back in 1787, our Founding Fathers left "it to the discretion of the legislature to vary its provisions in conformity to the variations in circumstances." 1 3. Federalist Paper No. 48 (James Madison). By these benefits of office, the Federal judiciary was afforded an essential measure of independence.

Indeed, having established a government composed of three "departments" 2 - the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary - our Founding Fathers recognized that more than "parchment barriers" 4. Federalist Paper No. 51 (Alexander Hamilton or James Madison). 3 were needed to secure the fledgling democracy against "a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department" 4. As so eloquently explained by Alexander Hamilton and John Madison, the "practical security" 5. Federalist Paper No. 48 (James Madison). 5 of imposing limited power in each department

may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections of human nature? . . . In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.[6]

6. Federalist Paper No. 51 (Alexander Hamilton or James Madison).

It follows that our Constitution was considered, by those who crafted it, to be a "limited Constitution" 7, 7. Federalist Paper No. 78 (Alexander Hamilton). a description which refers to the fact that much of what the Constitution does is limit power. Perhaps because the authors of the Constitution recognized that the judiciary was the "weakest of the three departments of power" 8 8. Federalist Paper No. 78 (Alexander Hamilton). as it had "no influence over either the sword or the purse," 9 the Federal Courts were made the "intermediary body between the people and the legislature" 10 9. Federalist Paper No. 78 (Alexander Hamilton). by Constitutional design. Its role as an "intermediary" included the duty "to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void," for 10. Federalist Paper No. 78 (Alexander Hamilton). "[w]ithout this, all the reservations of particular rights or privileges would amount to nothing." 11

Needless to say, the responsibility of the Federal judiciary to review the acts of the other two branches of government is not always appreciated. The relationship between the judiciary and the legislature has been especially tenuous and remains strained even today over such issues as the appropriate degree of control Congress should exert in sentencing decisions and the wisdom of pending legislation that would impose a Congressionally appointed 11. Federalist Paper No. 78 (Alexander Hamilton). "Inspector General" whose duties could include investigating particular rulings and management practices of Federal Judges. Such legislation poses the very real danger to the independence of the judiciary foreseen by the Founding Fathers, the "continual jeopardy of [its] being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its co-ordinate branches", for "there is no liberty, if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers." 12 12. Federalist Paper No. 78 (Alexander Hamilton).

In addition to its role in checking the power of our society's rulers, the Federal judiciary has been tasked with the responsibility of guarding "one part of the society against the injustice of the other part," for the Constitution's authors recognized that "where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger", "anarchy may ... be said to reign" 13. 13. Federalist Paper No. 51 (Alexander Hamilton or James Madison). Much of what a Federal Judge does stems from the balance we Americans strive to maintain between the will of the majority and the demands and needs of individuals. The Constitution and its Amendments, in conjunction with legislation designed to address specific inequities, constitute a body of law that has spawned claims Federal Judges must review and resolve, including claims of discrimination based on race, gender, age and disability, as well as claims of wrongdoing by injured patent holders, shareholders, pensioners, competitors, and consumers.

Although the State Courts handle the vast majority of criminal cases, every Federal trial judge has a docket of criminal cases involving the violation of Federal criminal statutes. In this regard, it is not the law that reflects the interests of the Constitution so much as the process that attends a criminal proceeding. The Bill of Rights - Amendments IV, V and VI - establish the litany of rights with which we are so familiar, including the right to remain silent, the right to a speedy and public trial by jury, and the right to have the assistance of counsel.

It is apparent that much of what I do as a Federal Judge is directly related to the Constitution's vision of having courts of justice serve as "the bulwarks of a limited Constitution" 14. 14. Federalist Paper No.78 (Alexander Hamilton or James Madison). The brilliance of the Constitution lies in its recognition that placing limits is our best guarantee of securing liberty, freedom and justice for all. My position and role as a Federal Judge, then, is a daily reminder that the Constitution is much more than a revered artifact. It is a working master plan whose passages possess such singular elegance and force that it is as vital today as it was when first conceived by the members of the Constitutional Convention in 1787.