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Landmark Legislation: U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals

Text of Document

26 Stat. 826
March 3, 1891

In the twenty-five years following the Civil War, the expansion of federal jurisdiction and increased litigation contributed to a growing caseload that nearly overwhelmed the federal courts. The Supreme Court fell several years behind schedule, the crowded dockets in the circuit courts prevented the circuit judges from annually attending all the courts within their jurisdiction, and district judges often presided alone in the circuit courts while also trying to manage the heavy caseload of the district courts. In the most important restructuring of the federal judiciary since its founding in 1789, the Congress in 1891 established a separate tier of appeals courts and granted the Supreme Court limited authority to determine the cases it heard.

Even before the Civil War, Congress received occasional proposals for the creation of appeals courts in order to reduce the workload of the Supreme Court and prevent justices from ruling on appeals of cases that came before them in trial courts. Other ideas submitted to Congress in the 1870s and 1880s included doubling the size of the Supreme Court or separating the Court into divisions that would hear different categories of cases. Some members of Congress, often those from the West and the South, wanted to restrict the authority of the federal courts and shift the burden of litigation back to the state courts. The general agreement on the need to reorganize the federal courts did not easily lead to the formation of a majority in favor of any specific proposal, and several bills that were approved in one house failed in the other.

In 1890 the House of Representatives approved by a large majority a bill to abolish the circuit courts, establish courts of appeals, and free Supreme Court justices from any circuit duties. In the Senate, William Evarts of New York offered a substitute that achieved many of the same goals but preserved more of the existing structure of the judiciary. The enactment of Evarts' proposal in 1891 established a court of appeals in each of the nine circuits, but maintained the circuit courts to operate as trial courts alongside the district courts. The Evarts Act established an additional judgeship for each circuit and authorized the circuit justice, the circuit judges, or district judges to preside over each three-person court of appeals. In diversity suits and in several categories of cases before the courts of appeals, there was no right of appeal to the Supreme Court, although those courts could certify cases for a decision from the high Court. The Supreme Court justices also could grant a writ of certiorari to hear individual appeals. The impact of the act was quickly apparent as the number of new cases before the Supreme Court fell from 623 in 1890 to 379 in 1891 and 275 in 1892.