Landmark Supreme Court Case: Humphrey’s Executor (1935)
Humphrey’s Executor (1935) is the 63rd landmark Supreme Court case featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Humphrey’s Executor (1935)
Humphrey’s Executor Facts:
President Calvin Coolidge appointed William Humphrey as a member of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1925, and he was reappointed for another six-year term in 1931. After Roosevelt took office in 1933, he became dissatisfied with Humphrey as Humphrey did not, in Roosevelt’s view, support his New Deal policies vigorously enough.
Twice, Roosevelt requested Humphrey to resign from the FTC, requests to which Humphrey did not yield. Finally, in 1933 Roosevelt fired Humphrey: “Effective as of this date you are hereby removed from the office of Commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission.” Nevertheless, Humphrey continued to come to work at the FTC even after he was formally fired.
The Federal Trade Commission Act permitted the President to dismiss an FTC member only for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” Roosevelt’s decision to dismiss Humphrey was based solely on political differences rather than job performance or alleged acts of malfeasance. Since Humphrey died shortly after being dismissed, his executor sued to recover Humphrey’s lost salary.
Q: Did section 1 of the Federal Trade Commission Act unconstitutionally interfere with the executive power of the President?
A: No. the FTC Act was constitutional and that Humphrey’s dismissal on policy grounds was unjustified.
Humphrey’s Executor Conclusion
Unanimous decision ruling the President may not remove any appointee to an independent regulatory agency except for reasons Congress has provided by law. The Constitution has never given “illimitable power of removal” to the president.
Differing from Myers (1926), the FTC was not a unit of the executive department because of other powers it had, but a body created by Congress to perform quasi-legislative and judicial functions. Quasi-legislative and quasi-judicial officers are different with the ability to be removed only with procedures consistent with statutory conditions enacted by Congress; the former serve at the pleasure of the President and may be removed at his discretion.
Next Case: U.S. v. Butler (1936)
Previous Case: Gold Clause Cases (1935)