Suppose Congress, in the interest of keeping rulings easier to read and interpret, passes a law that says the judicial branch at large must provide a summary of its findings that does not directly address the statute or action at hand, which can be written in a different section, perhaps after the summary.

E.g., could Congress prohibit a court from saying, "Statute X is unconstitutional because it violates Y premise. Furthermore, it violates Z premise, which also makes it unconstituional" but allow it to say something like "A statute in unconstitutional if Y or Z; therefore X is unconstitutional."

  • Congress putting words in the Court's mouth? I'd be surprised if that passed any kind of scrutiny.
    – cHao
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 17:30
  • @chee: Not telling them what to say per se, but how to say it.
    – moonman239
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 18:54

4 Answers 4



Congress has wide latitude to dictate the procedures of "inferior courts" -- the district courts and circuit courts of appeal. Those courts only exist because Congress created them, so Congress can generally set the terms on which they continue to exist. That power is limited in several important ways by the Constitution, including the terms and compensation of the judges, and standing to address cases, and then further limited by separation-of-powers principles.

But the Rules of Civil Procedure and the Rules of Criminal Procedure are a good example of how Congress has already -- and largely unobjectionably -- imposed these types of demands on the judiciary. The rules are generally drafted by the judicial branch, but Congress approves them and gives them the force of law. In both sets of rules, you can already see some requirements on how decisions are worded:

  • Criminal Rule 23 requires the court to "state its specific findings of fact" after a bench trial;
  • Criminal Rule 32 requires the court to "set forth the plea, the jury verdict or the court's findings, the adjudication, and the sentence" in judgments of conviction;
  • Civil Rule 52 requires the court to "find the facts specially and state its conclusions of law separately";
  • Civil Rule 58 requires that "every judgment and amended judgment ... be set out in a separate document";
  • Civil Rule 59 requires the court to "specify the reasons [for granting or denying a motion for a new trial] in its order"; and
  • Civil Rule 72 requires magistrates to enter "a recommended disposition, including, if appropriate, proposed findings of fact."

The rule you're proposing seems to go well beyond these requirements, but I don't see how it would run afoul of constitutional constraints. I could imagine an argument that this somehow encroaches on the courts' inherent authority, but I'm not really convinced that that authority protects against this.

For more information, you can read the Congressional Research Service report on "Congressional Authority Over the Federal Courts."

*This answer only applies to Article III courts, but even then does not apply to the Supreme Court, which is co-equal and generally has the authority to set its own rules. When it comes to Article I courts, though, Congress would probably have virtually unlimited discretion to impose the kinds of requirements that you're talking about, and even to say that the court has no jurisdiction to consider constitutionality at all. Congress might even get away with imposing these kinds of requirements on state courts through the Spending Clause

  • Good point about Article I v. Article III courts.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 3:11
  • 2
    "The rules are generally drafted by the judicial branch, but Congress approves them and gives them the force of law." This isn't really accurate. The judicial branch drafts them and approves them and the have the force of law unless Congress affirmatively acts to veto the draft laws in a form of "legislative veto" that has been held unconstitutional in some circumstances in Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919 (1983), despite its widespread use at the time. This matter in the examples cited.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 3:25

Very likely not.

Yes, Congress is empowered by Article III of the Constitution to "ordain and establish" Federal courts, as necessary, and the very first Congress did most of the work via the Judiciary Act of 1789, but they pretty much left the nitty gritty details up to the courts themselves. Here's an example:

SEC . 17. And be it further enacted, That all the said courts of the United States shall have power to grant new trials, in cases where there has been a trial by jury for reasons for which new trials have usually been granted in the courts of law; and shall have power to impose and administer all necessary oaths or affirmations, and to punish by fine or imprisonment, at the discretion of said courts, all contempts of authority in any cause or hearing before the same; and to make and establish all necessary rules for the orderly conducting business in the said courts, provided such rules are not repugnant to the laws of the United States.

(See also @bdb484's excellent answer about how the Rules of Civil and Criminal Procedure are established.)

So technically speaking, Congress probably has the power to pass a law mandating a specific format in legislative rulings, the problem is that your question appears to be asking the court to provide specific content in their rulings:

Suppose Congress, in the interest of keeping rulings easier to read and interpret, passes a law that says the judicial branch at large must provide a summary of its findings that does not directly address the statute or action at hand

It is not the job of the courts to "keep rulings easy to read and interpret", or to carefully explain how a ruling might apply to a different (but similar) situation.

First of all, the Supreme Court does a lot more than just "declare statutes unconstitutional". Most of the time, it either upholds or overturns lower court rulings, which would not fit into the wording you describe.

Secondly, the Supreme Court tries very very hard, even when it strikes down particular laws, to avoid saying what would pass constitutional muster instead (which is what it sounds like you're proposing).

Why? The Principle of Judicial Restraint:

3) The Court will not formulate a rule of constitutional law broader than required by the precise facts it applies to.

4) The Court will not pass upon a constitutional question although properly presented by the record, if there is also present some other ground upon which the case may be disposed of…

7) When the validity of an act of the Congress is drawn in question, and even if a serious doubt of constitutionality is raised, it is a cardinal principle that this Court will first ascertain whether a construction of the statute is fairly possible by which the question may be avoided.

If you follow the Supreme Court closely, you'll see time and time again that they use whatever excuse they can to decide cases on very, very narrow grounds, rather than routinely issuing very broad rulings the clearly apply to a wide variety of similar cases. This is a feature, not a bug.

So demanding that rulings explicitly spell things out the way you're suggesting sounds kind of like a demand to violate the principles of Judicial restraint, which isn't going to happen.

There is a sense that the court saying "you should word it this way instead" would be doing Congress' job for them, which they don't like to do.

  • 1
    From a practical matter, higher courts should seek to supply lower courts with whatever guidance would be necessary for them to make decisions in future cases that would be consistent with how the higher courts would rule in those same cases. To the extent that #3 discourages higher courts from giving adequate guidance, I would say it's a bug rather than a feature. What should be important is for higher courts to properly frame their guidance as indicating how they would generally rule in certain kinds of cases, without implying any authority beyond that.
    – supercat
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 21:20
  • 1
    Among other things, if a higher court describes how it would likely interpret a statute in certain general circumstances, before such a case arises, and if such an interpretation doesn't match Congressional intent, it would be better, for all concerned, to have the legislature discover that and correct the statute before a case arises, than for it to try to resolve things afterward.
    – supercat
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 21:24
  • 1
    @supercat I agree to some degree, perhaps I should have said, "from the perspective of the Supreme Court justices themselves, this is a feature, not a bug". In other words, a written ruling may not have the broad principles that OP is asking for, because it was deliberately crafted to only apply to the narrow law in question. Whether you view this as "weaseling out of having to choose" or "the proper function of the SCOTUS" will, of course, depend on your perspective (and probably on your view of the merit of the case in question).
    – BradC
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 21:38
  • The Supreme Court only has two real forms of authority: (1) it decides cases brought before it, and (2) it may indicate what principles it would be likely to apply in other cases. The only reason "judicial restraint" is necessary is that the Court has overstepped its bounds and doesn't want to be called out on that.
    – supercat
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 22:08
  • Re judicial restraint: You could probably characterize this as the court exercising "the judicial power" to decide individual cases, rather than some plenary (oligarchic) power to review the entirety of US law whenever it feels like it.
    – Kevin
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 23:10

Usually yes, possibly sometimes no.

There is an area of the law where Congress does this exact thing.

If a court wants to transfer certain kinds of federally regulated retirements assets titled in the name of one spouse to another spouse in the course of a divorce, this is only effective if the Court follows the exacting requirements of a "qualified domestic relations order" (similar requirements apply to both federal government employee benefits and to private pension plans governed by ERISA which is a federal law with broad pre-emptive effect over private pension law).

But, this is not considered an improper separation of powers or federalism violation, because courts are not required to issue qualified domestic relations orders at all. Issuing a qualified domestic relations order simply gives a divorce court jurisdiction to divide an asset that it would otherwise not have jurisdiction to divide.

Similarly, Congress can set forth by statute certain facts that must be made by a court in order for it to have the authority to invoke that statute, and under rules of court procedure in existence as a background default set of rules, Courts generally require that findings of fact establishing these facts be present in a relevant court order by a judge.

Some other examples of this kind of legislation involve federal welfare regulations which require that state child support awards be supported by a calculation of the child support guidelines that states must adopt in order for their citizens to receive federal welfare benefits.

Similarly, in criminal cases in federal court, courts are statutorily required to do a calculation of a U.S. Sentencing Guidelines recommended sentence prior to imposing a sentence upon a criminal defendant who is convicted of a federal crime.

As another example, federal law requires the judicial branch to keep and publish statistics regarding a variety of matters related to its business in an annual or periodic report, but does not specify every fine detail of how this must be done or what must be included in these reports, and this makes it necessary, in practice, for federal courts to require "cover sheets" classifying all new cases filed in federal court of all litigants commencing new cases.

At the state level, where the same separation of powers reasoning applies, many state legislatures require courts in temporary protective order cases to enter all orders on a statutorily mandated state form that facilitates entry of those orders into a state database that is available to law enforcement. It is unlikely that a similar mandate at the federal level would be found unconstitutional if it has a rational and reasonable justification such as that one.

Comity favors legislation in which the legislative branch does not micromanage the affairs of the judicial branch more than necessary, but this is muddied by the fact that the job of the judicial branch is to accurately implement the laws enacted by the legislative branch, so there aren't clear cut limitations on what Congress can or cannot mandate.

It isn't unthinkable that Congressional mandates on how the judiciary conducts its business, particularly if it impacts the substance of judicial decisions on constitutional issues, could be held unconstitutional on separation of powers grounds. But, for the most part, Congress doesn't push too hard in this area and the judiciary accepts the requirements that Congress does impose as valid.

While there are logical arguments why Congress should not be able to mandate the details of how courts write their orders, for the most part, in the law, experience and examples are stronger argument than those based upon mere logical reasoning from fundamental principles. Law is not physics.


So the question is very vauge, but suffice to say, no... and Congress would be safer playing with a Grizzly Bear Cub when they cannot see the Mother.

U.S. Judges are very, very territorial and do not allow anyone to tell them what they can and cannot due in their court room. The types of people who will need to read SCOTUS law are Judges, Lawyers, and Lawmakers... The latter usually were the former before they became legislatures. Maybe the Executive too, for good measure. Recall that close to the release of the decision on the Affordable Healthcare Act, President Obama talked up the need for SCOTUS to decide in favor of the law... and SCOTUS thought this was too much of an encroachment on their court and withheld the decision until Obama sent them an essay explaining his understanding of the Separation of Powers as they related to his demands to rule in his favor (they had already ruled in his favor... this was just being petty because they could...).

  • At two-thirds of Congress they could make their will stick, but at what cost?
    – Joshua
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 1:31
  • @Joshua: Telling the courts that they would have to write in a specific way would seem to be a violation of the the judiciary's powers by the legislature, and they could strike it down.
    – hszmv
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 17:18
  • Judges strike down laws. Empty seats do not.
    – Joshua
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 18:50

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