Antifederalists' Judicial Concerns

Introduction

The Antifederalists had numerous concerns about how the Constitution set up government and how much power it gave to each of the branches of government. In regards to the judicial branch, Antifederalists were concerned about the location of federal courts, the finality of court rulings, and the broad powers of the judicial branch. Even though Federalists tried to comfort them by stating that the judicial branch was the least powerful branch of government and only had the power of judgment that did not alleviate Antifederalists’ concerns.

Justice For Some Or Justice For All?

Federal courts were more inaccessible than state courts and a person might have needed to travel hundreds of miles to reach a federal court. At this time, the trip could take someone days or weeks to complete depending on the distance. Traveling such a distance was a hardship for two reasons – the cost and duration of the trip. For someone to travel to a federal court, they had to pay all the expenses associated with taking a trip such as food and lodging. In terms of the duration of the trip, people had to work on their land, so going away for an extended period of time proved inconvenient for some people. In some cases, people had to pay others to watch over their land while they were away adding to the expense of the trip. As the duration of the trip increased, so did the cost. In addition, the burden increased if the person had to bring witnesses for the case because it was another person or set of people to be provided for. For a rich person, it may not have been a problem to take a long trip to attend federal court, but for poorer people, it was a huge burden.1


Antifederalists were concerned because the judgments of the Supreme Court were final. There is no power above the Court that can correct its errors. For example, just as the Supreme Court can strike down a piece of legislation from Congress, neither Congress nor the President can overrule or veto a Supreme Court decision. Once the Supreme Court makes its decision, there is no other court or branch of government above it to appeal the decision. Not only are the justices final in their decisions, but they are final in their positions. The justices have lifelong appointments and can only be removed from office by impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors such as treason or bribery. They are allowed to make numerous mistakes and deliver bad judgments, but can only be removed for crime. The Antifederalists were very concerned about the power of the Supreme Court because of the independence from the other branches of government due to their final decisions in government and the near immunity of office for justices.2

The Constitution gave the judicial branch broad power, which greatly concerned the Antifederalists. They thought that the federal courts would try all cases under federal law and not leave any cases for the state courts to handle. The states would lose their ability to try cases, which would give the federal government even more power. Antifederalists thought that state courts would have a better understanding of their own laws, so it would be better for states to handle their own cases. The state would lose its judicial authority and continue to lose power through the gradual consolidation of power of the federal government if no reforms to the Constitution were made.3

Conclusion

Antifederalists were not convinced that the judicial branch was a harmless branch and they argued regardless of whether the judicial branch had actual power or theoretical power, they are still a branch of government, which should be properly created. Federalists tried to explain why each of the branches had specific powers in order to create an effective government. However, many people still remembered America’s fight for freedom from the tyranny of Britain, and Antifederalists wanted to make sure that the federal government did not become tyrannous. They were concerned that the federal branches of government had too much power and the power of the states would be drastically reduced.

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