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Snapshots of Federal Judicial History, 1790-1990

 


1790      1830      1870      1910      1950      1990 


 


Introduction


This exhibit presents basic information about the federal judiciary at regular intervals in its historical development. While these data do not capture every aspect of the judiciary’s evolution, they highlight several of the most important changes in federal judicial history. Readers can skip to any of the snapshot entries by selecting the relevant year from the banner above. The snapshot entry for each year begins with a chart showing the raw numbers of judges and courts in the federal system in that year. Each snapshot also includes charts and maps pertinent to developments occurring at or around the period in question. The text above each of these visualizations provides explanatory information and historical context. The data presented in these snapshots do not include courts in U.S. territories, except for the U.S. District Court for Puerto Rico, which Congress made an Article III U.S. district court in 1966.


More comprehensive information of the sort presented in this exhibit is available in the Federal Judicial History Office’s demographics, caseloads, and maps features, as well as in the FJC’s publications Debates on the Federal Judiciary: A Documentary History, vols. I-III, Creating the Judicial System, and Federal Judiciary Appropriations, 1792-2010.


 



 


1790


 


The Judiciary at a Glance, 1790
Authorized Article III Judgeships
Serving Article III Judges[1]

Supreme Court Seats
Circuit Courts
District Courts
Courts of Appeals
Other Federal Courts
Adjunct Judges
Judicial Branch Agencies and Governing Bodies


 


The Constitution of the United States (drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1789) set the framework for a judicial branch composed of the Supreme Court of the United States and “such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” In the Judiciary Act of 1789, one of the earliest major statutes passed under the new Constitution, the first Congress founded the Supreme Court with a chief justice and five associate justices. Congress also established district and circuit courts. U.S. district courts heard maritime and admiralty cases, as well as some minor criminal and civil matters. The now-defunct U.S. circuit courts heard most major civil and criminal trials and some appeals from the district courts. Initially, the circuit courts did not have dedicated judges of their own; these courts were instead staffed by a combination of district judges and Supreme Court justices "riding circuit." The chart below shows a timeline of these and later-founded federal courts during the period covered by this exhibit.[2]


 



 


 


The 1789 act divided the judicial system into three regional circuits, shown in the map below. North Carolina and Rhode Island were not included in the first circuit system because those states did not ratify the Constitution prior to the legislation’s passage. These two states were added to the judicial system system in 1790 after they joined the union. The modern state of West Virginia is depicted below as its territory was a part of Virginia until 1863. Maine and Kentucky were then part of Massachusetts and Virginia respectively. These future states each had their own district courts under the Judiciary Act of 1789 but were not included in the first circuit system.


 



 


Some aspects of the demography of the federal judiciary remained relatively constant until the mid-twentieth century.  The best available historical information suggests that all federal judges appointed during the nineteenth century identified as white men, for example. Some other shifts, arguably reflecting broader changes in society and the legal profession, did take take hold at earlier points, however. The average age of federal judges generally increased during the first several decades of the new system of government, for example, with a brief drop caused by a glut of new appointments in 1801 (discussed at greater length in the entry for 1830). The chart below shows this trend.


 



 


Under Article III, section 1 of the Constitution, "The judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated times, receive for their services, a compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office." Congress set the salaries for the first tranche of federal judges at $4,000 for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, $3,500 for associate justices, and a range of salaries for district judges according the geographical location of their districts. Salaries remained relatively steady for the first several decades of the judiciary's existence, but increased more rapidly starting in the 1870s. Congress made district judge salaries uniform in 1891. The chart below shows judicial salaries for each year from 1790 until 1891.


 



  



 


1830


 


The Judiciary at a Glance, 1830
Authorized Article III Judgeships
Serving Article III Judges

Supreme Court Seats
Circuit Courts
District Courts
Courts of Appeals
Other Federal Courts
Adjunct Judges
Judicial Branch Agencies and Governing Bodies


 


By 1830, the structure of the judiciary had undergone its first major revision, though some aspects of that transformation had already proved transitory. In 1801, Congress passed a new judiciary act that radically altered the system it had created twelve years earlier. Scholars differ on the degree to which these changes were prompted by ideological concerns or political opportunism, though both appear to have played at least some part. A Federalist-dominated lame duck Congress passed the act, which gave outgoing Federalist President John Adams the opportunity to appoint several new judges. By the same token, many of the other changes wrought by the bill, such as the abolition of circuit riding, reflected critiques of the judicial system that had been present since its founding. (See Spotlight on Federal Judicial History: The Midnight Judges). The 1801 act authorized the appointment of a cohort of circuit judges assigned to each of six numerically titled regional circuit courts. A separate law, also passed in early 1801, created a circuit court for the newly formed District of Columbia and authorized the judges of that court to hold a district court for the District of Potomac, which also included parts of Virginia and Maryland.


Just a year after the passage of the 1801 Act, Congress repealed the legislation, disbanding the regional circuit courts and removing thirteen circuit judges from office. Prevailing wisdom at the time held that Article III tenure terminated with the abolition of the court; since 1863, however, no Article III judges have lost their tenure through court abolition. The chart below shows the termination of Article III judicial tenures from 1790 to 1830.


 



               


 


A few months after repealing the Judiciary Act of 1801, Congress passed a new law that retained the numbered circuit system from the 1801 act but restored the district-based circuit courts and the use of district judges and Supreme Court justices riding circuit to hold circuit courts. The District of Columbia kept its circuit judges (although the judicial district of Potomac was replaced by a district court for the District of Columbia presided over by the circuit judges). Aside from occasional additions of new states and circuits, this system remained largely unaltered for several decades. From this point until the passage of the Judicial Circuits Act of 1866, Congress matched the number of Supreme Court seats and judicial circuits (the Court initially had two justices for each of the Eastern, Middle and Southern Circuits). By convention, presidents nominated justices with geographical ties to the circuits corresponding to vacant seats, though this was only a legal requirement for the justice appointed to fill the new seat created by the founding of the Seventh Circuit in 1807. Congress did not add to the circuit system again until 1837. The map below shows the circuit system as it stood in 1830.