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Landmark Legislation: Circuit Judgeships

Text of Document

16 Stat. 44
April 10, 1869

In the midst of Reconstruction, Congress approved a broad reorganization of the federal courts. The Judiciary Act of 1869 increased the size of the Supreme Court, established separate judgeships for the U.S. circuit courts, and included the first provision allowing judges to retire without losing their salary. After a period of six years in which the number of authorized seats on the Supreme Court shifted from nine to ten to seven, the act of 1869 restored the number of justices to nine, the same number of circuits established in 1866. Although Congress deferred to the persistent popular support for the justices' service on the circuit courts, the act lessened the demands of circuit riding. Justices were required to attend each circuit court within their assigned circuit only once every two years. Congress approved the appointment of circuit judges, who in all matters related to the circuit courts exercised the same authority as the justices. A circuit court could be held by the circuit judge, the justice appointed to the circuit, the district judge, or by any combination of two of them, thus making possible the simultaneous meeting of circuit courts within a given circuit.

The first version of the act was approved by Congress at the close of the session in March 1869 and fell victim to a pocket veto from outgoing President Andrew Johnson. After the new Congress convened a day later, the Senate quickly reintroduced and passed the measure. The House of Representatives then amended the bill to permit the retirement of federal judges appointed during good behavior. Justices and judges who reached the age of seventy and had served at least ten years could retire and receive their current salary for the remainder of their lives.

According to Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull, who introduced the legislation, the establishment of circuit judgeships was made necessary by the increased workload of the federal courts in the wake of the Civil War. The docket of the Supreme Court was two to three years behind schedule, and delays in the district courts prompted numerous appeals for the creation of more judicial districts. The appointment of circuit judges would ease the circuit duties of the justices, thus enabling them to focus on cases before the Supreme Court, and free district judges to concentrate on cases before their own courts. Trumbull and his fellow Republicans also hoped that the appointment of circuit judges would provide a more uniform administration of federal justice, particularly in the South, where federal authority only recently had been reestablished. The more efficient distribution of judicial responsibilities and the retirement clause offered promise of a more active federal judiciary, but by adhering to the system of dual trial courts and maintaining the circuit duty of Supreme Court justices, the act fell short of proposals for the elimination of the circuit courts and the creation of a middle tier of appellate courts.

Further reading:
Kutler, Stanley I. "Congress and the Supreme Court: The Game of Numbers and Circuits." In Judicial Power and Reconstruction Politics. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968), 48-63.