By Veritas Libertatis

In Article. III, Section. 2. of the United States Constitution we read “The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Consitution.” The exercise of judicial power in context of the Law is both straightforward and observed frequently in court opinions. Cases of equity, however, are less understood but equally essential to understanding the role of the Supreme Court in our nation. A court of equity applies principles of fairness while a court of law applies the law.  By comparing the differences between cases of law and equity, and understanding the history of the Court of Chancery we can begin to grasp the equity power extended to the Supreme Court in Article. III Section. 2. of our Constitution. 

In Medieval England, there existed both a court of equity – called the court of chancery – and a court of law. When formed, each operating in its own sphere – the court of chancery answering disputes in cases of equity, and the court of law answering disputes in cases of law. In time, the chancery gained more power as litigants who believed a case decided in the court law was wrong, could then appeal to the court of chancery and have it overruled. A court of chancery with the power to overrule the court of law, did three things: it destroyed the power and validity of the law, made the law unstable, and gave the King power over the court. Chancellors were appointed by the King because the chancellor had the power to overrule the decision of the court of law this gave the King power over the law.  Cases of equity are decided, primarily, by the chancellor using their best judgment, morals, and personal world views to make a fair decision. Soon there was no stability or reliance upon the law since with each new chancellor a new set of moral codes were used to decide cases of both equity and law. Eventually, the chancery undermined the whole structure and purpose of the law and gave immense power to the king and chancellor. 

In the United States Consitution, no court of chancery is organized; all questions of law and equity rest under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. This was an intentional move by the Founders based on their observations of the failure of a court of chancery to provide freedom and stability for people. Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett said, in the Notre Dame Law Review 2022 Symposium Keynote Address, about the relationship between law and equity, “At root its about the tension between the demands of the law which constrains and the demands of fairness which is flexible.” In other words, equity is about fairness and impartiality. This provides a unique contrary in the court that was intentionally given by our Founding Fathers. A justice therefore must struggle with this contrary and is why judicial philosophy and morality are considered during a confirmation hearing. Thus, we see a mixture of equity and law in our courts instead of weakness in one and strength in the other. 

Law and equity are essential to a free society. The failure of England’s court of chancery to ensure liberty under the law was observed by the Founding Fathers. Our observations of The Supreme Court can include how each justice struggles with the contrary of law and equity to decide a case. A reasonable, fair, and consistent court are necessary for freedom to withstand and for individuals in a society to trust the law, this is what Article. III. Section 2. of the Constitution protects.