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Landmark Legislation: Tenth Circuit

Text of Document

12 Stat. 794
March 3, 1863

The number of authorized seats on the Supreme Court reached its peak in 1863 when Congress established a Tenth Circuit consisting of California and Oregon and created a new justiceship to serve that circuit. The disability and subsequent resignation of the judge of the California Circuit gave rise to proposals for incorporating the Pacific coast states within the regular circuit system. Many people in California were eager for the appointment of a justice to serve the state's U.S. circuit courts in order to lend authority to the federal courts and to facilitate appeals to the Supreme Court. The movement gained further support when one of California's leading jurists, Stephen J. Field, informed the state's U.S. senators that he had no interest in the circuit judgeship but would accept a seat on the Supreme Court. In the midst of the Civil War, the Lincoln administration welcomed the opportunity to appoint a strong Unionist to the Supreme Court.

Even before the resignation of Matthew McAllister as California circuit judge, the judiciary committee in the House of Representatives proposed a bill to organize California and Oregon into a tenth circuit and appoint an additional justice to the Supreme Court. After McAllister resigned in January 1863, the Senate considered a similar bill, which won congressional approval. The act abolished the California circuit court as well as the circuit court jurisdiction of the Oregon district court and the California district courts' jurisdiction over appeals from the state's land commission. All pending matters that were the proper business of a circuit court were transferred to the new circuit courts to be held in each of the states' districts and to be presided over by a justice of the Supreme Court and the district judge. The act's final clause provided the justice assigned to the Tenth Circuit "one thousand dollars for his travelling expenses for each year in which he may actually attend a session of the supreme court of the United States," suggesting the importance of the circuit assignment and the fear that the justice might not be able to travel across the country for each session of the Court in Washington.

While Congress considered the legislation in February of 1863, Lincoln nominated Stephen Field to the California circuit judgeship that he had privately said he would decline. Before the Senate considered the nomination, the full Congress approved the act abolishing the circuit. Within a week Lincoln nominated and the Senate confirmed Field as the new justice. The Court appointed Field to serve as the Tenth Circuit justice. The full complement of ten justices sat together only for one week in December 1863, while illness and vacancies kept attendance below ten for the remainder of the period before Congress reduced the size of the court in 1866.