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Landmark Legislation: Judiciary Act of 1789

Text of Document

1 Stat. 73
September 24, 1789

In the Judiciary Act of 1789, the First Congress provided the detailed organization of a federal judiciary that the Constitution had sketched only in general terms. Acting on its constitutional authority to establish inferior courts, the Congress instituted a three-part judiciary. The Supreme Court consisted of a Chief Justice and five associate justices. In each state and in Kentucky and Maine (then part of other states), a federal judge presided over a United States district court, which heard admiralty and maritime cases and some other minor cases. The middle tier of the judiciary consisted of United States circuit courts, which served as the principal trial courts in the federal system and exercised limited appellate jurisdiction. Two Supreme Court justices and the local district judge presided in the circuit courts. Under the practice known as "circuit riding," each justice was assigned to one of three geographical circuits and traveled to the designated meeting places within the districts of that circuit.

Senators Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut and William Paterson of New Jersey were the principal authors of the act. Before debating the bill, the Senate distributed printed copies and solicited the opinions of constituents, particularly among the legal community. The debates over ratification of the Constitution made clear that many citizens feared that an independent federal judiciary might threaten state courts and restrict certain civil liberties. In response to those concerns, the act allowed state courts to exercise concurrent jurisdiction over many federal questions, it required federal courts to select juries according to the procedures used by the district's state courts, and it guaranteed the right to trial in the district where the defendant lived. By establishing a relatively high monetary value for cases in the circuit courts, the act protected small debtors and those who could not afford to travel to a distant court. The debate over the Judiciary Act coincided with Congress's consideration of the Bill of Rights, which offered further assurances that the federal courts would respect traditional liberties such as trial by jury.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 represented a compromise between those who wanted the federal courts to exercise the full jurisdiction allowed under the Constitution and those who opposed any lower federal courts or proposed restricting them to admiralty jurisdiction. The act acknowledged the legitimacy of the state courts and protected individual rights at the same time that it assured the supremacy of the federal judiciary. Extending the jurisdiction of the circuit courts to cases in which the parties were residents of different states greatly enhanced the importance of the federal courts. One of the most controversial provisions of the act, Section 25, granted the Supreme Court jurisdiction to hear appeals of decisions from the high courts of the states when those decisions involved questions of the constitutionality of state or federal laws or authorities. That and other provisions, such as the requirement for circuit riding, provoked frequent demands for revision of the act, but the basic outline of a multi-tiered federal court structure operating alongside state courts survives today.

Further reading:
Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800, v. 4, Organizing the Federal Judiciary. Maeva Marcus, et al., eds. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 22-107.

Origins of the Federal Judiciary: Essays on the Judiciary Act of 1789 , Maeva Marcus, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.