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The Rule-Making Power and Powers Over Process

The Rule-Making Power and Powers Over Process

Among the incidental powers of courts is that of making all necessary rules governing their process and practice and for the orderly conduct of their business.289 However, this power too is derived from the statutes and cannot go beyond them. The landmark case is Wayman v. Southard,290 which sustained the validity of the Process Acts of 1789 and 1792 as a valid exercise of authority under the necessary and proper clause. Although Chief Justice Marshall regarded the rule-making power as essentially legislative in nature, he ruled that Congress could delegate to the courts the power to vary minor regulations in the outlines marked out by the statute. Fifty-seven years later, in Fink v. O’Neil,291 in which the United States sought to enforce by summary process the payment of a debt, the Supreme Court ruled that under the process acts the law of Wisconsin was the law of the United States, and hence the Government was required to bring a suit, obtain a judgment, and cause execution to issue. Justice Matthews for a unanimous Court declared that the courts have “no inherent authority to take any one of these steps, except as it may have been conferred by the legislative department; for they can exercise no jurisdiction, except as the law confers and limits it.”292 Conceding, in 1934, the limited competence of legislative bodies to establish a comprehensive system of court procedure, and acknowledging the inherent power of courts to regulate the conduct of their business, Congress authorized the Supreme Court to prescribe rules for the lower federal courts not inconsistent with the Constitution and statutes.293 Their operation being restricted, in conformity with the proviso attached to the congressional authorization, to matters of pleading and practice, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure thus judicially promulgated neither affect the substantive rights of litigants294 nor alter the jurisdiction295 of federal courts and the venue of actions therein296 and, thus circumscribed, have been upheld as valid.

289 Washington-Southern Nav. Co. v. Baltimore & P.S.B.C. Co., 263 U.S. 629 (1924).

290 23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 1 (1825).

291 106 U.S. 272, 280 (1882).

292 See Miner v. Atlass, 363 U.S. 641 (1960), holding that a federal district court, sitting in admiralty, has no inherent power, independent of any statute or the Supreme Court’s Admiralty Rules, to order the taking of deposition for the purpose of discovery. See also Harris v. Nelson, 394 U.S. 286 (1969), in which the Court found statutory authority in the “All Writs Statute” for a habeas corpus court to propound interrogatories.

293 In the Act of June 19, 1934, 48 Stat. 1064, and contained in 28 U.S.C. § 2072, Congress, in authorizing promulgation of rules of civil procedure, reserved the power to examine and override or amend rules proposed pursuant to the act which it found to be contrary to its legislative policy. See Sibbach v. Wilson, 312 U.S. 1, 14-16 (1941). Congress also has authorized promulgation of rules of criminal procedure, habeas, evidence, admiralty, bankruptcy, and appellate procedure. See Hart & Wechsler, supra at 749-765 (discussing development of rules and citing secondary authority). Congress in the 1970s disagreed with the direction of proposed rules of evidence and of habeas practice, and, first postponing their effectiveness, enacted revised rules. Pub. L. 93-505, 88 Stat. 1926 (1974); Pub. L. 94-426, 90 Stat. 1334 (1976). On this and other actions, see Hart & Wechsler, supra.

294 However, the abolition of old rights and the creation of new ones in the course of litigation conducted in conformance with these judicially prescribed federal rules has been sustained as against the contention of a violation of substantive rights. Sibbach v. Wilson, 312 U.S. 1, 14 (1941).

295 Cf. United States v. Sherwood, 312 U.S. 584, 589-590 (1941).

296 Mississippi Pub. Corp. v. Murphree, 326 U.S. 438 (1946).

Limitations to This Power.—The principal function of court rules is that of regulating the practice of courts as regards forms, the operation and effect of process, and the mode and time of proceedings. However, rules are sometimes employed to state in convenient form principles of substantive law previously established by statutes or decisions. But no such rule “can enlarge or restrict jurisdiction. Nor can a rule abrogate or modify the substantive law.” This rule is applicable equally to courts of law, equity, and admiralty, to rules prescribed by the Supreme Court for the guidance of lower courts, and to rules “which lower courts make for their own guidance under authority conferred.”297 As incident to the judicial power, courts of the United States possess inherent authority to supervise the conduct of their officers, parties, witnesses, counsel, and jurors by self-preserving rules for the protection of the rights of litigants and the orderly administration of justice.298

The courts of the United States possess inherent equitable powers over their process to prevent abuse, oppression, and injustice, and to protect their jurisdiction and officers in the protection of property in the custody of law.299 Such powers are said to be essential to and inherent in the organization of courts of justice.300 The courts of the United States also possess inherent power to amend their records, correct the errors of the clerk or other court officers, and to rectify defects or omissions in their records even after the lapse of a term, subject, however, to the qualification that the power to amend records conveys no power to create a record or re-create one of which no evidence exists.301

297 Washington-Southern Nav. Co. v. Baltimore & P.S.B.C. Co., 263 U.S. 629, 635, 636 (1924). It is not for the Supreme Court to prescribe how the discretion vested in a Court of Appeals should be exercised. As long as the latter court keeps within the bounds of judicial discretion, its action is not reviewable. In re Burwell, 350 U.S. 521 (1956).

298 McDonald v. Pless, 238 U.S. 264, 266 (1915); Griffin v. Thompson, 43 U.S. (2 How.) 244, 257 (1844). See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140 (1985) (court of appeal rule conditioning appeal on having filed with the district court timely objections to a master’s report). In Rea v. United States, 350 U.S. 214, 218 (1956), the Court, citing McNabb v. United States, 318 U.S. 332 (1943), asserted that this supervisory power extends to policing the requirements of the Court’s rules with respect to the law enforcement practices of federal agents. But compare United States v. Payner, 447 U.S. 727 (1980).

299 Gumbel v. Pitkin, 124 U.S. 131 (1888); Covell v. Heyman, 111 U.S. 176 (1884); Buck v. Colbath, 70 U.S. (3 Wall.) 334 (1866).

300 Eberly v. Moore, 65 U.S. (24 How.) 147 (1861); Arkadelphia Co. v. St. Louis S.W. Ry., 249 U.S. 134 (1919).

301 Gagnon v. United States, 193 U.S. 451, 458 (1904).

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Last modified: June 9, 2014