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Landmark Legislation: Judiciary Act of 1801

Text of Document

2 Stat. 89
February 13, 1801

Within twelve years of the establishment of the federal judiciary, Congress approved a sweeping reorganization of the nation's court system and significantly expanded federal jurisdiction. The Judiciary Act of 1801 reduced the size of the Supreme Court from six justices to five and eliminated the justices' circuit duties. To replace the justices on circuit, the act created sixteen judgeships for six judicial circuits. The U.S. circuit courts over which the new judges were to preside gained jurisdiction over all cases arising under the Constitution and acts of the United States. The requirements for diversity suits (cases involving parties from different states) made it easier for creditors to recover debts in federal courts. In many cases, most importantly those involving land, restrictions on jurisdictional amounts were removed. In other cases jurisdictional amounts were reduced and the transfer of cases from state courts made easier. The division of states to create additional circuit and district courts further encouraged citizens to rely on the federal rather than state courts.

The reorganization of the federal judiciary was in part a response to calls for reform of the justices' circuit court obligations. As early as 1790 the attorney general, concerned that justices could rule on appeals of cases they decided in trial court, recommended the end of circuit riding. A 1793 act reducing from two to one the number of justices required for a circuit court did little to quiet the justices' complaints about the burdens of time and travel. The scope of the Judiciary Act of 1801, however, went beyond any specific revision of the judicial system and represented the triumph of those who advocated a dominant national judiciary rather than the compromise of 1789 which left the state courts with a significant share of federal jurisdiction.

Congressional debate on the bill reflected the bitter conflict between Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans. Federalists insisted that the increase in the number of judges and the establishment of more courts were necessary to protect the federal government against hostile state governments and "the corrupters of public opinion." Republicans interpreted the act as an attempt to weaken the state governments and secure patronage positions for Federalists. Republicans also feared the expanded jurisdiction of the same courts in which their supporters had been prosecuted under the Alien and Sedition Acts. Although a version of the bill had been introduced before the elections of 1800, John Adams signed the act into law on February 13, 1801, less than three weeks before the end of his term and that of the Federalist majority in the Sixth Congress.

The partisan character and the timing of the act provoked immediate opposition to the new organization of the judiciary. The hastily confirmed appointees to the circuit courts earned the label "Midnight Judges" as Jeffersonian Republicans accused the Federalists of packing the courts following their defeat in the elections of 1800. The newly-elected president, Thomas Jefferson, and the Republican majority in the Seventh Congress came into office intent on repeal.

Further reading:
Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800, v. 4, Organizing the Federal Judiciary. Maeva Marcus, et al., eds. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 284-360.

Kathryn Turner. "Federalist Policy and the Judiciary Act of 1801." William and Mary Quarterly , 3rd ser., 22(January 1965): 3-32.