History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  Chew Heong v. United States: Chinese Exclusion and the Federal Courts
Learn about the case — historical background and documents

The Federal Courts and Their Jurisdiction

The U.S. Circuit Court for the District of California

The case of Chew Heong was first heard in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of California. The U.S. circuit courts had served since 1789 as one of the two types of trial courts in the federal judiciary and were convened regularly in most judicial districts. Circuit courts had jurisdiction over all suits above a certain monetary value, most federal crimes, and suits between citizens of different states (so-called diversity jurisdiction). In 1875, Congress significantly expanded the jurisdiction of the circuit courts, giving them authority to hear any case involving a “federal question,” that is, concerning a federal statute, the Constitution, or a treaty. District courts had jurisdiction over admiralty cases, suits of a lesser monetary value, and all noncapital crimes. The circuit courts had appellate jurisdiction over some decisions of the district courts, although all appellate jurisdiction would be transferred to the U.S. circuit courts of appeals when they were established in 1891. Congress abolished the old circuit courts in 1911 and transferred their remaining jurisdiction to the district courts.

Before 1869, circuit courts had no judges of their own but were convened by the district judge and the Supreme Court justice assigned to the geographical circuit in which the districts were organized. Congress in 1869 provided for the appointment of circuit judges to serve on the circuit courts within each of the nine geographical circuits. Circuit courts could also be convened by the circuit’s Supreme Court justice or the district judge or by a panel of two of the authorized judges. Lorenzo Sawyer became the circuit court judge in California and the rest of the Ninth Circuit soon after the act’s passage.

As in several other Chinese habeas cases, the usual two-judge panel hearing the case of Chew Heong was expanded to include Judge Ogden Hoffman of the California district court and Judge George M. Sabin of the Nevada district court, who served as “consulting judges” along with Justice Field and Judge Sawyer. Sabin, like Judge Matthew Deady of the District of Oregon, frequently assisted the California federal courts in processing the overwhelming number of habeas cases brought in response to the Chinese exclusion acts.

Habeas corpus petitions could be filed in either district or circuit courts, and both types of courts in California routinely granted petitions for habeas corpus in Chinese exclusion cases. The courts proceeded to hear the cases
de novo, that is, they heard evidence and came to their own decision upon the Chinese immigrant’s right to land, independent of the collector of the port’s findings. Eventually, however, the Department of Justice and immigration officials mounted a systematic campaign to curb federal courts’ jurisdiction over immigration cases and, by 1905, had succeeded in limiting the federal courts’ review to questions of law and procedure.

Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court of the United States stood at the top of the federal judicial hierarchy. The Constitution granted the high court limited “original jurisdiction” to hear and decide certain first-time cases. Primarily, however, the Supreme Court heard appeals from the federal circuit courts as well as the state supreme courts. The Constitution also granted Congress wide authority to determine the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. In 1884, when
Chew Heong came before it, the Supreme Court considered two types of appeals from the federal courts. When a party seeking appeal filed a “writ of error” and the Court found that it had jurisdiction over the case, the Court was obliged to hear the appeal. In other cases, the Court had discretion to decide whether to decide the appeal, and, if it chose to proceed, it would issue a “writ of certiorari.” Today, almost all of the appeals are heard on writs of certiorari as the Court’s discretion over which appeals to take has vastly expanded.

In 1884, the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to hear appeals in habeas corpus cases was limited. The act of 1867 had expanded the federal courts’ power to issue habeas corpus petitions to any person confined illegally, in violation of the Constitution or federal laws, and allowed appeals to the Supreme Court if the lower court denied the writ. The Congress, fearing that its Reconstruction reforms would be invalidated by the Supreme Court in appeals of habeas corpus decisions, took away the Court’s appellate jurisdiction in habeas corpus cases a year later. In 1885, the Supreme Court would finally regain the power to review decisions in habeas corpus cases.

While the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction over habeas corpus was still limited in 1884, some habeas corpus cases did come before it through other procedural means. The government’s appeal in
Chew Heong was brought by a writ of error. By law, if the circuit court judges disagreed in their opinions, either party could appeal to the Supreme Court by obtaining a “certificate of division of opinion” from the lower court. Given the division of opinion in the circuit court, with the presiding circuit court justice denying the writ and Judge Sawyer believing it should be issued, the Supreme Court had jurisdiction to hear the appeal.


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