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Landmark Legislation: California Circuit

Text of Document

10 Stat. 631
March 2, 1855

When California was admitted as a state in 1850, the distance from Washington, D.C. to the Pacific coast, compounded by the lack of any connecting rail lines, made it impractical to assign a Supreme Court justice to any circuit court in the new state. Like the courts in most new states that had not been incorporated in a circuit, California's district courts exercised the jurisdiction of district and circuit courts. This dual jurisdiction, however, overwhelmed the California federal courts which also had jurisdiction over appeals of decisions from a special commission established to validate land grants issued under Spanish and Mexican governments. In 1855, Congress responded by establishing, for the first time since the short-lived Judiciary Act of 1801, a distinct circuit judgeship, and a circuit without a Supreme Court justice to preside in the circuit courts.

While a majority in Congress recognized the practical expediency of establishing a circuit judgeship in California, the debate in the Senate revealed the persistent opposition to the elimination of circuit duties for the Supreme Court justices. Judah Benjamin of Louisiana warned that the establishment of a separate circuit judgeship set a dangerous precedent that would be the first step toward repeal of circuit riding for the justices. He opposed any act that might make the Supreme Court "a local court, isolated in Washington," and "kept apart from all connection with the people." Stephen Douglas of Illinois warned of the establishment of a separate system of justice in the western states. "This is to be the entering wedge to the overthrow of the entire system." Others such as William Seward of New York insisted that California was a unique case that set no precedent for the future organization of the judiciary. Much of the debate, which coincided with a broad reconsideration of judges' salaries, centered on the more mundane question of the proper compensation for a judge living in Gold-Rush era California. The act authorized an annual salary of $4500.

Congress granted the U.S. Circuit Court for the Districts of California the same original and appellate jurisdiction exercised by other circuit courts within the federal judiciary. The organizing statute repealed the circuit court jurisdiction of the California district courts, although those two courts continued to hear appeals from the board of commissioners established to confirm private land claims. The new circuit court was to meet once a year in San Francisco, and the circuit judge could hold special sessions of the courts as necessary. The circuit judge might also preside with the district judges in order to expedite appeals from the board of commissioners. Only one judge, Matthew McAllister, ever served on the California circuit court, and soon after he resigned in 1863, Congress abolished the court and established the Tenth Circuit.