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The Justices' Opinions on the U.S. Circuit Courts

This exhibit summarizes selected opinions and grand jury charges delivered by justices of the Supreme Court in the course of their duties on the U.S. circuit courts, the main trial courts of the federal judiciary from 1789 to 1911.

For many, what comes to mind when they think of the Supreme Court of the United States is a solemn marble palace in Washington, D.C., where cloistered justices provide the final word on a small number of weighty cases. Throughout much of the Court’s history, however, its justices performed some of their most important duties away from the nation’s capital in courtrooms across the country. Until 1869 (except for a brief period from 1801 to 1802), the U.S. circuit courts had no judges of their own, so U.S. district judges and Supreme Court justices “riding circuit” presided. Circuit riding continued even after Congress authorized judgeships dedicated to the circuit courts in 1869. The practice mostly ceased after the Evarts Act of 1891 created the U.S. courts of appeals, on which the justices were authorized to sit. Circuit riding officially ended in 1911, when Congress abolished the circuit courts and transferred their jurisdiction to the U.S. district courts.

Working as trial (and occasionally appellate) judges across the country, the justices presided over many routine matters: contract and property disputes, admiralty cases, patent suits, and ordinary federal criminal cases, among others. At the same time, as scholar David Lynch has noted, justices on circuit dealt frequently with “momentous social, political and economic issues facing the Union.” Particularly in the early period of the nation’s history, the U.S. circuit courts heard many important cases, while the Supreme Court conducted relatively little business. As a result, Lynch asserts, “in those early years federal law grew from the ‘inferior courts’ upwards rather than down from the Supreme Court.”

Many of the cases in this exhibit involved significant national issues. Early cases show the circuit courts deciding constitutional issues on which no Supreme Court precedent yet existed, grappling with the problem of prosecuting crimes not defined by federal statute, and confronting several instances of insurrection. As time progressed, the circuit courts heard cases involving foreign relations, slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Indian tribes, corporations, immigration, and women’s suffrage.

Some cases appear here not because they involved issues of national importance but because they contributed to the development of a legal principle or, in several instances, simply because they are interesting (and perhaps largely forgotten) snapshots of American history. As a whole, this exhibit is intended to highlight the important role the U.S. circuit courts played in American legal history as well as the often-overlooked contributions to those courts made by the justices of the Supreme Court.

Forty-five justices, beginning with Chief Justice John Jay and concluding with Associate Justice David Brewer, who was appointed in 1889, are represented. Six justices who served during the period covered by the exhibit (Chief Justice John Rutledge and Associate Justices John Blair, Jr., Thomas Johnson, Alfred Moore, Thomas Todd, and Robert Trimble) were omitted because they had no published circuit court opinions or none that merited inclusion. The exhibit is organized by justice, ordered chronologically by the date of their appointment to the Supreme Court, so the opinions themselves are not in strict chronological order.

The vast majority of the opinions presented here were published in Federal Cases, a thirty-volume series published between 1894 and 1897 that collected opinions from the U.S. circuit and U.S. district courts from 1789 until the establishment of the still-extant Federal Reporter series in 1880. The opinions in Federal Cases are alphabetized and numbered consecutively. Each citation to Federal Cases (designated by “F. Cas.”) in this exhibit gives the case title, volume, page number, court, year, and case number. Post-1880 cases published in the Federal Reporter (designated by “F.”) are cited in a similar format. The circuit in which the case was heard is given as well. Readers should keep in mind that the circuit assignments of both justices and circuit courts changed frequently during the nineteenth century. The related resources linked below provide further information on these assignments.

Related FJC Resources:
The U.S. Circuit Courts and the Federal Judiciary
A Brief History of Circuit Riding
Supreme Court of the United States: Circuit Allotments
Federal Judicial Circuits (text)
Federal Judicial Circuits (interactive map)