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Landmark Legislation: Judiciary Act of 1802

Text of Document

2 Stat. 156
April 29, 1802

Soon after its repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801, the Republican majority in Congress in the spring of 1802 recognized the need to enact its own organization of the federal courts. The resulting statute was a response to the practical needs of a growing judiciary and the continuing partisan conflict over the role of the federal courts. The Judiciary Act of 1802 perpetuated the Federalists' plan of six regional circuits. Although Supreme Court justices again were required to serve on the circuit courts, the circuits were smaller and travel accordingly less demanding than in the 1790s. Kentucky, Tennessee, and Maine remained outside the circuit system, thus relieving the justices of travel to these distant areas. When the district judge and circuit justice were of divided opinion on a case before a circuit court, the new act gave either party the right to refer the case to the Supreme Court, whereas since 1793 split decisions had required the attendance of a second justice to issue a ruling at the next session of the circuit court.

In the Judiciary Act of 1802, Congress eliminated the Supreme Court's summer session and provided for one annual session to begin on the first Monday in February. This provision intensified the partisan dispute that began when Congress, in an act of March 8, 1802, revoked the judiciary act of the previous year and restored the structure of the judiciary as it had stood previously, thereby abolishing the sixteen judgeships assigned to the reorganized circuit courts. Jeffersonian Republicans asserted that Congress's right to establish inferior courts implicitly allowed it to abolish such courts. The incumbent circuit judges and their Federalist supporters insisted that judges appointed for service during good behavior could not be removed by statute. When the act of April 1802 canceled the Supreme Court term scheduled for June of that year, Federalists accused the Republicans of seeking to delay a ruling on the constitutionality of the repeal act until months after the new judicial system was in operation.

Chief Justice John Marshall, who entered office in February 1801, doubted the constitutionality of the repeal act as well as the new act's requirement that the justices resume their circuit duties. Following an exchange of letters in which a majority of the justices concluded that they were obligated to serve on the circuit courts, Marshall deferred to the act. In March 1803, the Supreme Court in the case of Stuart v. Laird ruled that Congress had authority to transfer a case from a court established by the act of 1801 to one established by the act of 1802, and by implication affirmed the constitutionality of the Judiciary Act of 1802.

Further reading:
Haskins, George L., and Herbert A. Johnson. History of the Supreme Court of the United States, vol. 2, Foundations of Power: John Marshall, 1801-1815. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1981. Chapter 5.