O'Donoghue v. United States
289 U.S. 516 (1933)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

O'Donoghue v. United States, 289 U.S. 516 (1933)

O'Donoghue v. United States

No. 729

Argued April 12, 1933

Decided May 29, 1933

289 U.S. 516

Syllabus

1. The Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia are constitutional courts of the United States, ordained and established under Art. III of the Constitution. Their judges hold their offices during good behavior, and their compensation

Page 289 U. S. 517

cannot, under the Constitution, be diminished during their continuance in office. Pp. 289 U. S. 529, 289 U. S. 551.

2. The division of powers of government into three separate and distinct departments -- the legislative, the executive, and the judicial -- was not for convenience merely, but with the basic and vital object of precluding the commingling of these essentially different powers in the same hands. P. 289 U. S. 530.

3. The exceptions found in the Constitution do but emphasizs the generally inviolate character of this plan. P. 289 U. S. 530.

4. Equally as important as the separation is it that each department shall be kept completely independent, in the sense that its acts shall never be controlled by, or subjected directly or indirectly to, the coercive influence of either of the other two departments. P. 289 U. S. 530.

5. The anxiety of the framers of the Constitution to preserve this independence, especially of the judicial department, was manifested by the provision forbidding the diminution of the compensation of the judges of courts exercising the judicial power of the United States. P. 289 U. S. 531.

6. The power to diminish the compensation of the federal judges was explicitly denied by the Constitution in order, inter alia, that their judgment or action might never be swayed in the slightest degree by the temptation to cultivate the favor or avoid the displeasure of the department which, as master of the purse, would otherwise hold the power to reduce their means of support. P. 289 U. S. 531.

7. There rests upon every federal judge affected a duty to withstand any attempt, directly or indirectly, in contravention of the Constitution, to diminish this compensation, not for his private advantage, but in the interest of preserving unimpaired an essential safeguard adopted as a continuing guaranty of an independent judicial administration for the benefit of the whole people. P. 289 U. S. 533.

8. The judges of the Supreme Court and of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia are of equal rank and power with those of the other inferior courts of the federal system, and plainly within the spirit and reason of the compensation provision. P. 289 U. S. 534.

9. Indeed, the reasons which impelled the adoption of this constitutional limitation apply with even greater force to the courts of the District than to the inferior courts of the United States located elsewhere, because the judges of the former courts are in closer contact with, and more immediately open to the influences of, the legislative department, and exercise a more extensive jurisdiction

Page 289 U. S. 518

in matters affecting the operations of the general government in in various departments. P. 289 U. S. 535.

11. Territorial courts are legislative courts, created in virtue of the national sovereignty or under Art. IV, § 3, cl. 2, of the Constitution, vesting in Congress the power "to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States," and their judicial power is not and could not be derived from Art. III of the Constitution. P. 289 U. S. 535.

11. The so-called territories were parts of the outlying domain of the United States organized in preparation for their becoming states. The Constitution could not have intended that the judges appointed for such provisional and temporary governments should have permanent tenure and irreducible compensation. P. 289 U. S. 536.

12. The District of Columbia, unlike the territories, is a permanent part of the United States -- the very heart of the Union -- over which Congress, under Art. I, § 8, cl. 17, has permanent and exclusive power of legislation -- the combined powers of national and state governments where legislation is possible. P. 289 U. S. 538.

13. Possession of the plenary power under Art. I, § 8, cl. 17, does not preclude Congress from exercising in the District other appropriate powers conferred upon it by the Constitution, or authorize a denial to the inhabitants of any constitutional guaranty not plainly inapplicable. P. 289 U. S. 539.

14. It is important to bear in mind that the District was made up of portions of two of the original states, and was not taken out of the Union by the cession. Prior thereto, its inhabitants were entitled to all the rights, guaranties, and immunities of the Constitution, among which was the right to have their cases arising under the Constitution heard and determined by federal courts created under, and vested with the judicial power conferred by, Art. III. It is not reasonable to assume that the cession stripped them of these rights, and that it was intended that, at the very seat of the national government, the people should be less fortified by the guaranty of an independent judiciary than in other parts of the Union. P. 289 U. S. 540.

15. Because, for the reasons stated, the provisions of Art. III are not applicable to the territories, it does not follow that they are likewise inapplicable to the District, where these peculiar reasons do not obtain. P. 289 U. S. 541.

Page 289 U. S. 519

16. The Supreme Court and Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia are permanent establishments-federal courts of the United States and parts of the federal judicial system. P. 289 U. S. 544.

17. They are vested generally with the same jurisdiction as that possessed by the inferior federal courts located elsewhere in respect of the cases enumerated in § 2 of Art. III, and it logically follows that, where jurisdiction over these cases is conferred upon the courts of the District, the judicial power, since they are capable of receiving it, is ipso facto vested in such courts as inferior courts of the United States. P. 289 U. S. 545.

18. Subject to the guarantees of personal right in the Amendments and the original Constitution, Congress has as much power to vest courts of the District of Columbia with a variety of jurisdiction and powers as a State has in conferring jurisdiction on its courts. P. 289 U. S. 545.

19. Since Congress has the same power under Art. III to ordain and establish federal courts in the District of Columbia as in a state, whether it has done so in any particular instance depends upon whether the judicial power conferred extends to the cases enumerated in that Article. If it does, the judicial power thus conferred is not, and cannot be, affected by the additional congressional legislation, enacted under Art. I, § 8, cl. 17, imposing upon such courts other duties which, because that special power is limited to the District, Congress cannot impose upon inferior courts elsewhere. P. 289 U. S. 546.

20. The conclusion to which the Court has come in this case is in accord with the continuous and unbroken practice of Congress from the beginning of the Government. P. 289 U. S. 548.

21. Observations in Ex parte Bakelite Corp.,279 U. S. 438, touching the status of the courts of the District of Columbia, characterized as obiter; Postum Cereal Co. v. California Fig Nut Co.,272 U. S. 693, qualified and distinguished. P. 289 U. S. 550.

22. General expressions in any opinion are to be taken in connection with the case in which those expressions are used. If they go beyond the case, they may be respected, but ought not to control the judgment in a subsequent suit when the very point is presented for decision. P. 289 U. S. 550.

Response to questions certified by the Court of Claims in two actions, one by a Justice of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia and the other by a Justice of

Page 289 U. S. 520

the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, in which the claimants sought to recover sums withheld from their respective salaries by a ruling of the Comptroller General for the United States, based on his construction of an appropriation act which reduced the salaries of all judges except those "whose compensation may not, under the Constitution, be diminished during their continuation in office." This case was argued with Williams v. United states, reported next after this one.

Page 289 U. S. 525

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