Beyond Congress's Reach: Constitutional Aspects of Inherent Power

Dustin B. Benham

Texas Tech University School of Law

April 6, 2012

Seton Hall Law Review, Vol. 43, 2013

Congress believes it has plenary authority to limit the inherent power of federal courts to police their own final judgments for fraud by a court officer. Surprisingly, some lower courts agree and have recently interpreted a federal statute in a way that restricts traditionally inherent judgment-relief powers. Both Congress and the courts are wrong. Their error stems from confusion about the scope of Article III 'judicial power' and the so-called inherent powers necessary to support it. The resulting ill-considered abrogation of federal court power sheds light on broader questions regarding the scope of judicial power and Congress’s ability to limit it.

The propriety of any congressional restriction on a so-called inherent power should be analyzed through a two-step framework. First, courts should determine whether the power is absolutely essential to the exercise of the core, or irreducible nucleus, of Article III judicial power. If the power is not essential to support judicial power, Congress has plenary authority to abolish or limit it. Second, assuming the power is essential, courts should determine whether the statute restricting it prevents the full exercise of core Article III judicial power. If so, Congress has exceeded its power.

Based on this analysis, several traditional inherent powers are beyond Congress’s reach, including the direct contempt power, the power to take evidence and develop a factual record, and the power to vacate judgments for fraud on the court. Notably, the fraud on the court power provides courts with an essential tool to remedy litigation wrongs ranging from bribing a federal judge to creating false documents or other evidence.

And while the outer parameters of core judicial power are notoriously difficult to locate, some so-called inherent powers are plainly not necessary for courts to exercise even the most expansive view of the power. These include the power to dismiss cases for forum non conveniens and the power to dismiss cases for want of prosecution.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 51

Keywords: Article III, Rule 60(b), Rule 60, Rule 60(d), fraud on the court, habeas, AEDPA, inherent power, judicial power

JEL Classification: K00, K10, K40, K41

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Date posted: April 7, 2012 ; Last revised: February 24, 2013

Suggested Citation

Benham, Dustin B., Beyond Congress's Reach: Constitutional Aspects of Inherent Power (April 6, 2012). Seton Hall Law Review, Vol. 43, 2013. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2035548

Contact Information

Dustin Benham (Contact Author)
Texas Tech University School of Law ( email )
1802 Hartford
Lubbock, TX 79409
United States
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