The Federal Courts and Their Jurisdiction
U.S. Circuit Court for the Northern District of New York
The U.S. Circuit Court for the Northern District of New York was the forum for three distinct phases of the judicial proceedings related to Susan B. Anthony: her arrest and examination; the appeal of the district court’s denial of a request for her release on a writ of habeas corpus; and her trial.
The circuit courts of the United States operated from 1789 until they were abolished as of January 1, 1912. They were primarily trial courts and exercised jurisdiction over most federal crimes, over suits between citizens from different states, and over cases in which the government was a party. By the time of Anthony’s trial, much of the circuit courts’ jurisdiction overlapped with that of the district courts. The circuit courts also exercised jurisdiction over appeals from the district courts, although Congress ended the appellate jurisdiction of the circuit courts when it established the current system of U.S. courts of appeal in 1891. Cases in circuit court could be heard by any of three different judges, alone or in a combination of any two. The three judges were the justice of the Supreme Court assigned to the circuit, the district court judge, and the circuit judge, a post created by Congress in 1869.
The warrant for the arrest of Susan B. Anthony was signed by William C. Storrs, a commissioner appointed by the circuit court. Storrs also heard the evidence against Anthony in a series of hearings, or examinations. The commissioner’s examination determined whether the evidence against the accused was sufficient to hold her in federal custody awaiting the consideration of an indictment by a federal grand jury.
law authorized circuit court judges to appoint commissioners, who were authorized to issue warrants for arrest, take affidavits, hold preliminary examinations, and admit the accused to bail. Section 9 of the Enforcement Act of 1870, under which Anthony was arrested, directed circuit courts “to increase the number of commissioners, so as to afford a speedy and convenient means for the arrest and examination of persons charged with a violation of this act; and such commissioners are hereby authorized and required to exercise and discharge all the powers and duties conferred on them by this act.” In 1872, three commissioners were employed in Rochester, New York.
After the district court refused to release Anthony from custody on a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, she said her attorneys appealed that decision to the circuit court of the Northern District of New York. No appeal beyond the circuit court was available at that time.
In May 1873, U.S. Attorney Richard Crowley moved in district court that the trial of Anthony be transferred to the U.S. Circuit Court for the Northern District of New York. The circuit court convened in three cities designated by Congress: Canandaigua, Albany, and Utica. Anthony would be tried in Canandaigua in June. At the June term, Supreme Court Justice Ward Hunt would preside. In criminal trials, it was customary to have two judges on the bench, because only by a split of opinion between two judges could a criminal conviction be certified for a decision by the Supreme Court. Despite this more common practice, and despite the fact that District Court Judge Nathan Hall was in the courtroom and heard cases earlier in the day, Supreme Court Justice Ward Hunt presided alone at the Anthony trial.
U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York
When the U.S. commissioner determined that Anthony and the other voters had probably violated the law, he referred their cases to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. Anthony’s case had first gone to the district court on a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to free her from the commissioner’s order that she be held in federal custody. Following the commissioner’s referral of the case, a federal grand jury in the district court, meeting in Albany, indicted all the female voters, and the district judge set a trial date of May 1873. When the day for trial arrived, the U.S. attorney asked that the case be transferred to the U.S. Circuit Court for the Northern District of New York at its term in June.
Since 1842, district and circuit courts had concurrent jurisdiction in non-capital criminal cases, and section 8 of the Enforcement Act of 1870 assigned to the district courts “cognizance of all crimes and offences committed against the provisions of this act, and also, concurrently with the circuit courts.” To accommodate cases over a large geographical area, Congress mandated annual court sessions for the Northern District of New York in Albany, Utica, Rochester, Buffalo, Auburn, and at least one other city by designation of the judge.
The Trial of Susan B. Anthony