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Landmark Legislation: California Circuit
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 The organizing statute repealed the circuit court jurisdiction of the California district courts, although those two courts continued to hear appeals from the board of commissioners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.
10 Stat. 631
March 2, 1855
CHAP. CXLII. - An Act to establish a Circuit Court of the United States in and for the State of California.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That a judicial circuit shall be, and the same is hereby, constituted, in and for the State of California, to be known as the circuit court of the United States for the districts of California, a term of which court shall be held annually, in the city of San Francisco, on the first Monday of July in each and every year; and for this purpose a judge shall be appointed, and a court hereby organized shall, in all things, have and exercise the same original jurisdiction as is vested in the several circuit courts of the United States, as organized under existing laws, and shall also have and exercise the same appellate jurisdiction over the district courts of the United States for the northern and southern districts of California as by existing laws is vested in the several circuit courts of the United States over the district courts of the United States in their respective circuits; and the said judge shall appoint a clerk, who shall have the power to appoint a deputy, which clerk shall reside, and keep the records of the court, in the said city of San Francisco, and shall receive for the services he may perform double the fees allowed to the clerk of the southern district of New York.
SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That said judge shall have power to order and hold such special or extra terms of said court as he may deem expedient, and at such time or times as he shall, by his order, under his hand and seal, direct, addressed to the marshal and clerk of said court, at least thirty days previous to the commencement of such special or extra term or terms, which order shall be published intermediately in two or more of the gazettes of the State of California; and at any or all of such special terms the business of said court shall have reference, to the immediately preceding regular or special term, and be proceeded with in the same manner; and such proceedings shall be, to all intents and purposes, as valid as if the same had taken place at a regular term of said court; all which terms shall be held at such place, in the said city of San Francisco, as the marshal of the United States for the northern district of California, whose duty it shall be to act as the marshal of said court, shall procure for the purpose, under the directions of said judge; and appeals from the proceedings of the court organized under this act shall be taken to the Supreme Court of the United States, in the same manner, and on the same conditions, as appeals are taken under existing laws from the other circuit courts of the United States.
SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That the judge of said court shall have the same power to issue writs of habeas corpus and other writs as is vested by law in the other judges of the United States.
SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That in case the judge of said court shall fail to attend at the time and place of holding any regular or special term of said court, before the close of the fourth day after the commencement of such term, the business pending, before said court shall stand adjourned until the next regular term of said court, or until the next special term of the court, should one be ordered under the authority of this act previous to such regular term.
SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That the district courts of the United States for the northern and southern districts of California, shall hereafter exercise only the ordinary duties and powers of the district courts of the United States, except the special jurisdiction vested in the said district courts of California over the decisions of the board of commissioners for the settlement of private land claims in California under existing laws; and that appeals from the judgments, orders, and decrees of either of said district courts of California, in the exercise of its ordinary jurisdiction, shall be taken to the circuit court organized by this act, in the same manner and upon the same conditions as appeals may be taken from the judgments, orders, or decrees of the district courts to the circuit courts of the United States.
SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That the judge appointed under this act shall, from time to time, or at any time when in his opinion the business of his own court will permit, and that of the courts of the northern and southern districts of California shall require, form part of, and preside over, the said district courts when either of them is engaged in the discharge of the appellate jurisdiction vested in it over the decisions of the board of commissioners for the settlement of private land claims in the State of California, under the act of Congress entitled "An act to ascertain and settle the private land claims in the State of California," passed March third, eighteen hundred and fifty-one, and by another act entitled "An act making appropriations for the civil and diplomatic expenses of the government for the year ending thirtieth of June, eighteen hundred and fifty-three, and for other purposes," passed thirty-first of August, eighteen hundred and fifty-two; and it shall be the duty of the clerks of the respective district courts of California to give thirty days' written notice to the judge of the court organized under this act, of the time and place of the sitting of such district court for the discharge of such appellate jurisdiction; and in case the judge of such district court shall fail, from sickness or other casualty, to attend at such time and place, the judge of the court organized under this act, is hereby authorized to hold said court, and proceed with the business of the court, in accordance with the provisions prescribed for the regulation of said district court in the act of Congress hereinbefore referred to; and all appeals to the Supreme Court of the United States from the decisions of said district court, whether held by the last-mentioned judge, or by him in conjunction with the district judge, or by the district judge alone, shall be taken in the manner prescribed by the act of Congress passed on the third day of March, eighteen hundred and fifty-one, entitled "An act to ascertain and settle the private land claims in the State of California."
SEC. 7. And be it further enacted, That the salary of the judge appointed under this act shall be four thousand five hundred dollars per annum, commence from the date of his appointment.
SEC. 8. And be it further enacted, That all laws and parts of laws militating against this act be, and the same are hereby, repealed.
APPROVED, March 2, 1855.