Appellate fact review in constitutional litigation has never been more important. Whether someone’s rights were violated often turns on what happened—matters of fact—and not solely on matters of law. That makes it all the more striking that the U.S. Supreme Court has increasingly reversed rulings of lower courts based on factual disagreement, given that such factfinding is typically entitled to significant appellate deference. Scholars and would-be reformers have noted many problems with appellate factfinding, but have tended to assume that the Court itself has final say on the applicable standard of review.
Yet as a matter of constitutional law, the Supreme Court is not the factfinder in chief. Article III gives Congress power to define the Court’s “appellate jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact” and Article I gives Congress power to “constitute” the inferior federal courts. Congress can, by statute, require Supreme Court Justices and appellate judges to view the factual record with some level of deference. We call this approach “fact stripping.” It is different than the more familiar jurisdiction stripping—the much-discussed power of Congress to take away the federal courts’ power to hear certain kinds of cases—and raises fewer constitutional or legitimacy concerns. And if done properly, it can instead protect rights by shifting power from appellate judges to trial judges and jurors better able to find the facts.
Our focus is on use of fact stripping regarding constitutional claims in lower federal courts, but Congress has already regulated the review of constitutional facts—with the Supreme Court’s approval—in other important areas of law. For example, in federal habeas corpus, Congress has mandated more deference by restricting appellate factual review, while in some areas of administrative adjudication, such as immigration, it has required less factual deference (that is, more review) than the constitutional floor would require.
How Congress should exercise this constitutional power is primarily a question of how best to allocate power within the judiciary, and thus raises questions of institutional competence, including the role of appellate courts in law development and establishing uniformity, as well as the importance of robust factfinding in constitutional cases. Congress, however, need not agree with where the Supreme Court has drawn those lines, and might want to re-allocate factfinding power to the trial courts. Our goal here is not to prescribe a particular form of fact-stripping legislation, but to suggest that congressional regulation of appellate constitutional factfinding is one of many possible responses to a Supreme Court that has increasingly arrogated factfinding power to itself.
Joseph Blocher & Brandon L. Garrett,
73 Duke Law Journal
Available at: https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/dlj/vol73/iss1/1