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Landmark Legislation: The Judges' Bill

Text of Document

43 Stat. 936
February 13, 1925

The so-called Judges' Bill of 1925 fundamentally redefined the Supreme Court's role within the federal judiciary by repealing much of the mandatory jurisdiction of the Court. The act preserved an automatic right of appeal to the Supreme Court in a few types of cases, but in other areas cases would come to the Court only when the justices granted a writ of certiorari in response to a petition from a party in a case before a lower court. With authority to determine a greater number of the cases it heard, the Supreme Court became primarily a forum for deciding questions of constitutional principle, while the circuit courts of appeals issued the final decisions in the great majority of appeals cases.

At the same time that Chief Justice Taft led the effort to establish a judicial conference that would contribute to the more efficient administration of the lower federal courts, he and a committee of justices drafted legislation intended to ease the growing caseload of the Supreme Court. Earlier restrictions on appeals to the Supreme Court proved ineffective in the face of increased federal litigation associated with the First World War and the enforcement of Prohibition. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee formally requested the justices to draft legislation that might remedy the backlog of cases, although the suggestion for the bill came privately from Taft. Justice Willis Van Devanter headed the committee that referred the draft to the full Court before submitting it to Congress in late 1921.

The bill offered by the justices (thus its familiar title, the "Judges' Bill") eliminated direct appeals from the district courts to the Supreme Court except in certain cases related to interstate commerce and anti-trust legislation, writs of errors by the United States in criminal cases, reviews of rulings of the Interstate Commerce Commission, and injunctions against state administrative agencies. Appeals from the states' highest courts to the Supreme Court were limited to cases in which the state court declared an act of the United States invalid or denied a claim that a state law was unconstitutional. Other appeals from the state courts would be by petition for certiorari. Decisions of the U.S. courts of appeals regarding state constitutional rulings also could be taken to the Supreme Court. No other decisions of the courts of appeals could be taken to the Supreme Court except by certiorari, although an appellate court could certify a case for a ruling from the Supreme Court. The bill also sought to bring together in a more logical and unified form legislation related to appeals from territorial courts and the Court of Claims.

After taking an unusually public role in his advocacy of the Conference of Senior Circuit Judges, Taft deferred to the advice of friends in Congress and allowed Van Devanter to represent the Court in committee hearings in the Senate and House of Representatives. Taft meanwhile cultivated support among the state bar associations and legal scholars. Although Congress did not act immediately on the recommended bill, by late 1924 a solid majority had coalesced behind the measure, which won approval in February 1925.