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The U.S. Circuit Courts and the Federal Judiciary

Quick Reference Guide

1789-1801, 1802-1869
  • Circuit courts organized by judicial district (e.g. U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Massachusetts) and assigned to judicial circuits
  • No circuit judges; circuit courts held by justices of the Supreme Court of the United States and judges of the U.S. district courts, or, from 1802 on, either of them alone
  • The circuit courts for the District of Columbia (1801-1863) and the Districts of California (1855-1863) were exceptions to the above, having three and one dedicated circuit judgeships, respectively
  • Circuit courts organized by judicial circuit (e.g. U.S. Circuit Court for the First Circuit)
  • Three circuit judgeships for each of the First through Fifth Circuits; Sixth Circuit held by one circuit judge and district judges of Tennessee and Kentucky
  • Circuit courts organized by judicial district and assigned to judicial circuits
  • Circuit judgeships established for each circuit; circuit courts held by justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, circuit judges, district judges, or combinations thereof

In the Judiciary Act of 1789 Congress established a system of circuit courts to serve as the trial courts for most federal criminal cases, for suits between citizens of different states (diversity cases), and for civil suits initiated by the United States. The circuit courts also exercised appellate jurisdiction over all but the smallest admiralty cases and other civil suits that originated in the U.S. district courts. Rather than create separate judgeships, Congress stipulated that each circuit court panel would consist of two justices of the Supreme Court and the local U.S. district court judge. Beginning in 1793 Congress required only a single Supreme Court justice to hold a circuit court with the district judge. The circuit courts convened in the federal judicial districts and were designated by the name of the district.

In the Judiciary Act of 1801, as part of the effort to institute a stronger federal judiciary, the outgoing Federalist majority in Congress established six federal judicial circuits, each with its own circuit court, and relieved the Supreme Court justices of any circuit court responsibilities. The act authorized three circuit judgeships for each of the five circuits east of the Appalachians, while a single circuit judge and the district judges for Kentucky and Tennessee were to form the panel for the U.S. Circuit Court for the Sixth Circuit.

Within thirteen months, a new Congress with a majority of Jeffersonian Republicans repealed the controversial Judiciary Act of 1801 and reorganized the federal court system in the Judiciary Act of 1802, which preserved the system of six numbered circuits but abolished the separate judgeships. Once again, a justice of the Supreme Court joined with a U.S. district court judge to convene U.S. circuit courts in the judicial districts. The act of 1802 authorized the district judge to hold a circuit court in the absence of the justice, although only a justice could preside over appeals from the district courts. (An act of 1867 allowed the district judge to rule on appeals if all parties in the case consented.) As the Union of states grew, Congress expanded the number of circuits and increased the size of the Supreme Court to provide a justice for assignment to each circuit. In 1855 Congress created the U.S. Circuit Court for the California Circuit and authorized a separate circuit judgeship. In 1863 Congress abolished this court as well as the judgeship and placed California and Oregon in a Tenth Circuit.

Faced with a sharp increase in the volume of federal litigation, Congress in 1869 created a judgeship for each of the nine circuits then in place. The new circuit judge, the designated justice, the district judge, or some combination of two of them could preside over the circuit courts. The circuit judges had the same authority as the Supreme Court justice assigned to the circuit. The appellate jurisdiction of the circuit courts ended in 1891 with the creation of the U.S. circuit courts of appeals, to which the circuit judges were also assigned. The U.S. circuit courts continued to serve as trial courts until January 1, 1912, when they were abolished according to the terms of the Judicial Code of 1911.

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U.S. Circuit Judges, 1869-1911