What was a federal crime in 1787? I agree with Brutus. There weren't any.

November 19th, 2009

I am helping Judge Gibson prepare the syllabus for the Federal Court Practice class at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law this Spring. For the first class, the students will be reading Article III (as all law students should).

Re-reading Article III reminded me of a question I asked my Federal Courts professors, to which I did not receive a satisfactory answer: What was a crime under the authority of the Federal Government in 1787?

Article III, Section 2 Provides:

The trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury; and such trial shall be held in the state where the said crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any state, the trial shall be at such place or places as the Congress may by law have directed.

But what were these crimes? The Federal Government has no general police power.

Brutus XIV (28 February 1788) notes:

“There is no criminal matter, to which the judicial power of the United States will extend; but such as are included under some one of the cases specified in this section.”

I tend to agree with Brutus’s reading.

Reading the original text of the Constitution, the only federal crimes that jump to mind are counterfeiting currency and securities, and perhaps treason. But what else?

Today, most federal crimes are based in the Commerce Clause. But how were federal crimes defined before the New Deal Revolution? This may be fodder for a future law review article.

For those curious, in addition to Article III, tentatively, the students may also studying Brutus XI-XII, XIV-XV and The Federalist 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, followed by Marbury v. Madison.