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Landmark Legislation: Jurisdiction and Removal Act of 1875

Text of Document

18 Stat. 470
March 3, 1875

Culminating a series of acts that expanded the authority of the federal judiciary after the Civil War, Congress in 1875 granted the U.S. circuit courts the jurisdiction to hear all cases arising under the Constitution and the laws of the United States, as long as the matter in dispute was worth more than $500. The statute also made it possible for plaintiffs and defendants in cases before state courts to remove a case to a U.S. circuit court whenever the matter involved a question of federal law or if any members of the parties were from different states. By establishing the full federal jurisdiction permitted by the Constitution, the act of 1875 fundamentally changed the role of the federal courts through the most sweeping extension of judicial power since the short-lived Judiciary Act of 1801.

Since 1789, federal jurisdiction had been divided between the federal courts and state courts, with the latter hearing most cases involving federal law if both parties were residents of the state. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Congress occasionally expanded the right of removal to federal courts in order to protect specific areas of federal authority such as enforcement of customs regulations during the War of 1812 and the collection of revenue following South Carolina's attempt to nullify tariff laws. During and after the Civil War, Congress more frequently included removal provisions in acts designed to protect civil and political liberties in the former Confederate states, but the right of removal continued to be extended only in attempts to enforce specific policies.

After the Supreme Court in 1874 overturned the removal provisions in two recent acts, Representative Luke Poland of Vermont introduced legislation to restore the right of removal in all civil cases in which one of the defendants was a citizen of a state other than that in which the suit was filed. Although the House rejected this modest extension of removal and passed a bill to make only minor revisions in the law, Senator Matthew Carpenter of Wisconsin proposed amendments to grant full federal jurisdiction to the United States circuit courts and guarantee the right of removal in any civil case arising under federal law or in which there was diversity of citizenship, with the $500 threshold applying to both categories of cases. The House accepted that version of the bill, which President Grant signed into law in March 1875.

By 1875, the members of Congress who supported full federal jurisdiction and a broad right of removal from the state courts were concerned less with the protection of freed slaves and white Unionists in the South than with the advancement of business interests that were often obstructed by state courts. The debate in Congress focused on the growing significance of interstate commerce and the economic benefits of a uniform system of justice. Although this broad redefinition of federal jurisdiction prompted surprisingly little comment at the time, the act of 1875 attracted new types of litigation that swelled the caseload of the federal courts and challenged the existing organization of the judiciary.

Further reading:
Kutler, Stanley I. Judicial Power and Reconstruction Politics . Ch. 4, " The Expansion of Power: New Jurisdiction, " 143-160. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Wiecek, William M. "The Reconstruction of Federal Judicial Power, 1863-1875." The American Journal of Legal History 13 (1969): 333-359.