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Landmark Legislation: Division of the Eighth Circuit

Text of Document

45 Stat. 1346
February 28, 1929

For the first time in more than 65 years, Congress in 1929 created a new judicial circuit to accommodate the increased number of states and the expansion of caseload in the federal courts. The 12 states that entered the Union between 1866 and 1912 had been incorporated into the Eighth and Ninth Circuits. The Eighth Circuit, encompassing 13 states stretching from Canada to Mexico and from the Mississippi to beyond the Rocky Mountains, became the largest in the nation. By the 1920s, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals was meeting in three divisions, and district court judges were recruited regularly to assist the six circuit judges. Various groups representing the bar and the judiciary feared that such a large circuit threatened the efficient administration of justice in regionally-defined courts.

An American Bar Association committee suggested in 1925 that Congress realign the nation's entire circuit structure and establish one additional circuit in order to redistribute the appellate caseload without authorizing additional judgeships. The congressional hearings on the proposal in 1928 revealed widespread opposition to a plan that would have changed the composition of all but two circuits and for the first time have made a single state, New York, a circuit unto itself. The arguments against the proposal demonstrated the extent to which judges and lawyers considered the existing circuits to be geographically-distinct legal cultures defined by local procedures and types of litigation. Chief Justice Taft suggested that a reorganization limited to the Eighth Circuit might solve the most serious problems and find broader support.

Later in the same Congress, the House of Representatives considered two proposals to divide the existing Eighth Circuit. Representative Walter Newton of Minnesota offered a bill to separate the circuit's eastern and western states, thus creating circuits organized on the basis of two regional economies, one predominantly agricultural and the other related to mining and irrigation. An alternative proposal divided the northern from the southern states. The judges of the existing circuit court of appeals thought the division of east and west would create a fair balance of caseload, and the bar of the circuit agreed.

With little opposition to the principle of dividing the circuit, congressional deliberation on the bill focused on the need for more judgeships and requests for more meeting places of the circuit courts of appeals. With almost no discussion on the floor, the House and Senate passed a statute that grouped Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, and Arkansas as the Eighth Circuit and established a Tenth Circuit consisting of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Sitting circuit judges were reassigned according to their residence, and three additional judgeships were authorized. Five judges would serve the Eighth Circuit, and four would sit in the Tenth.