In addition to their duties as law enforcement officers, United States marshals have played an important role in the administration of the federal courts. The Judiciary Act of 1789 directed the president to appoint a marshal to serve in each judicial district for a renewable term of four years. The act required marshals to attend the sessions of the district and circuit courts within their respective districts and to carry out all lawful orders issued to them under the authority of the United States. Marshals carried out the courts’ orders to make arrests, to provide for prisoners in federal custody, and to deliver summonses, subpoenas, and warrants. Under the provisions of the Judiciary Act of 1789, the marshal for the judicial district in which the Supreme Court of the United States sat was also responsible for serving that court. A statute of 1867 authorized the Supreme Court to appoint its own marshal.
Congress authorized the marshals to adjourn sessions of the district and circuit courts when the judge or judges of those courts were absent. Marshals also provided protection for federal judges, jurors, and witnesses. In 1792 Congress granted marshals the same authority in executing federal laws as sheriffs exercised in carrying out state laws. At the same time that the marshals carried out their principal responsibilities in the federal courts, Congress and the executive branch assigned to them local administrative tasks, such as recording the census and receiving messages from foreign consuls resident in their district.
The marshals’ administrative tasks within the courts arose out of their responsibility for the disbursal of all funds by the court, as provided by an act of 1791. They disbursed funds to pay the fees and traveling expenses of witnesses, jurors, district attorneys, and clerks of court. Marshals also bought supplies for the judges and court officers, procured jail space for federal prisoners, hired the bailiffs and court criers, and rented space for courtrooms.
The financial duties of the marshals required them to report to the Department of Treasury all of the court’s expenses and receipts of fees, thus making them important links between the federal government and the federal courts. Despite this role, the marshals were relatively free from oversight by the executive branch until 1861, when they were placed under the supervision of the Attorney General. In 1956 the Department of Justice established the Executive Office for U.S. Marshals, and in 1969 the department established the U.S. Marshals Service, with centralized authority over the marshals serving in the judicial districts.
Like other court officers of the early judiciary, the marshals were paid through a fee system rather than receiving a salary for their services. Marshals collected fees for issuing subpoenas, summons, writs, and other types of judicial processes; for ensuring that jurors and witnesses appeared at trials; and for arresting persons accused of federal crimes and bringing them before the courts. In 1896 Congress replaced the fee system with a salary for marshals.
During the twentieth century, and particularly after the creation of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts in 1939, the marshals’ administrative responsibilities within the courts decreased while their role as law enforcement officers expanded. The marshals and their deputies continue to provide protection to judges, witnesses, and jurors, and they continue to execute the lawful orders of the federal government in the judicial districts.
Calhoun, Frederick S. United States Marshals and Their Deputies, 1789-1989. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Court Officers and Staff