United States v. Klein, Then and Now

Gordon Gregory Young

University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law


Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, Vol. 44, 2012, pp. 265-329
U of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2012-23

United States v. Klein, decided during Reconstruction, was the first Supreme Court case to invalidate a statutory restriction on federal courts’ jurisdiction. It is the only one to do so by finding a violation of Article III of the Constitution. Klein has been cited in thirty-three United States Supreme Court opinions, and roughly five hundred times each by lower federal courts and law journal articles. Recent commentators have read Klein both too broadly and narrowly. Its central holding is that Congress may not grant federal courts jurisdiction to decide a set of cases on the merits while depriving them of jurisdiction to apply specified parts of the Constitution in reaching their decisions. Read through the proper interpretive lenses, Klein has a great deal more to say than this, indeed a great deal more than I thought or expressed in 1981 in the earliest comprehensive article on the case. By means of the law of judgments and preclusion, Klein is best explained as entailed by Congress’s lack of power to simultaneously court-strip the state as well as the federal courts of thw powe to enforce constitutional rights. Despite my earlier doubts and some new Klein scholarship that would read it more narrowly, Klein can best be read as more broadly prohibiting statutory interference with federal courts’ processes of fact-finding and their methods of both constitutional and statutory interpretation. These attractive readings of Klein call into question one federal post-conviction habeas corpus statute and, possibly, parts of the War on Terror, that restrict the courts’ use of foreign and international law, including the Geneva Conventions. Some recent scholarship seems to read Klein too narrowly as placing no restrictions on Congress’s power to control how federal courts interpret statutes. Other recent scholarship reads it too broadly. The latter takes its prohibitions far beyond protection of federal courts’ decision processes, seeing in Klein, a holding that prohibits otherwise constitutional legislation on grounds that it would deceive the public. This attributed holding seems an unfortunate one. It would task courts with the job of requiring reasonable truth in legislation. That is a job that neither the Court at the time of Klein, nor the current Supreme Court, would relish or would be likely to find required of it by the Constitution. Beyond these issues, this Article explores the connections between Klein’s central holding against treating federal courts as puppets and the perennial debate about court-stripping; specifically, Congress’s power simply to exclude classes of constitutional claims from federal court enforcement.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 66

Keywords: Reconstruction, Constitution

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Date posted: May 30, 2012 ; Last revised: November 27, 2012

Suggested Citation

Young, Gordon Gregory, United States v. Klein, Then and Now (2012). Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, Vol. 44, 2012, pp. 265-329; U of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2012-23. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2070859

Contact Information

Gordon Gregory Young (Contact Author)
University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law ( email )
500 West Baltimore Street
Baltimore, MD 21201-1786
United States
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