History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  Olmstead v. United States: The Constitutional Challenges of Prohibition Enforcement — Historical Background and Documents
The Federal Courts and Their Jurisdiction

United States District Court for the Western District of Washington

The Judiciary Act of 1789 created the U.S. district courts as trial courts with jurisdiction over admiralty, minor crimes, and suits involving the federal government. Over the course of the nineteenth century, Congress expanded the district courts’ jurisdiction. With the abolition of the circuit trial courts in 1911, the district courts became the sole trial courts of the federal system. They heard all matters arising in their district under the laws of the United States. During national Prohibition, district court dockets came to be dominated by criminal law cases. Originally the courts’ districts mirrored state boundaries. As the population and federal jurisdiction expanded in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Congress authorized multiple districts for some states.

The state of Washington was organized by Congress as a single judicial district in 1890, with one district court judge, and the district was assigned to the Ninth Judicial Circuit. In 1905, Congress divided the state into the Eastern and Western Districts. As the population and judicial business expanded dramatically with the boom of the Pacific Northwest, brought on by the Alaska and Yukon gold rushes, an additional judgeship was created for the Western District in 1909.

United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

Established in 1891, the U.S. circuit courts of appeals were the first federal courts designed exclusively to hear cases on appeal from trial courts. These were courts that settled issues of law; they did not try original cases. Congress established a court of appeals in each of the existing nine regional circuits. The existing circuit judges and one newly authorized judge in each circuit served as the judges of the appellate courts along with district court judges or Supreme Court justices, who could make up the required three-judge panels. The same 1891 act gave the U.S. circuit courts of appeals jurisdiction over the great majority of appeals from the U.S. district courts and the U.S. circuit courts. This appellate function was intended by Congress to reduce the number of cases that could be routinely appealed to the Supreme Court. The 1925 Judiciary Act, also known as the Judges’ Bill, further restricted appeals to the Supreme Court, and this Act, combined with the explosion of litigation brought about by the expansion of federal activity, resulted in great growth of business before the courts of appeals. By the 1920s, each U.S. court of appeals had at least three assigned judges, ending the need for regular service by district judges on court of appeals panels.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit originally heard appeals from trials in federal courts in California, Oregon, Nevada, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. In 1900, the territories of Alaska and Hawaii were added to the circuit; in 1912, Arizona was added. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had the broadest geographical jurisdiction as it also heard appeals from American possessions across the Pacific and a special extraterritorial court in China.

Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court was the only court named in the Constitution. The Judiciary Act of 1789 first set out the details of the Court’s organization and jurisdiction. Subsequent acts and its practices over time altered the original plans. By the time of the Olmstead case, the Supreme Court was a court of nine justices, including the Chief Justice. The Supreme Court exercised limited original jurisdiction as set out in the Constitution, but it was primarily an appeals court. Moreover, the Court largely controlled what cases it would hear on appeal. The 1891 act establishing the U.S. circuit courts of appeals authorized the justices of the Supreme Court to accept or reject cases brought to them through petitions for writs of certiorari, and the 1925 Judges’ Bill further increased the justices’ discretion in determining which cases to hear by eliminating certain automatic appeals that had previously existed.


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