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Circuit Riding

September 24, 1789

When Congress created the U.S. circuit courts as the primary trial courts of the federal judiciary, it did not create judgeships assigned exclusively to those courts. Instead, the local U.S. district court judge and two justices of the Supreme Court were to preside 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. The travel was arduous, and after a plea from the justices, Congress reduced the number of justices designated to hold circuit court from two to one. In 1801, when the Federalist majority in Congress established new circuit courts with their own judges, circuit riding ceased, but it began again when the 1801 reorganization was repealed the following year. Not until 1869 did Congress again create separate circuit judgeships, and while this development did not end circuit riding completely, it greatly lessened its burdens upon the justices. In 1911 Congress abolished the circuit courts, thereby eliminating circuit riding. The law has continued to require the Chief Justice to allot the justices to the judicial circuits, however, for which they perform occasional duties such as ruling on applications for emergency actions.

See also: Spotlight on Judicial History: A Brief History of Circuit Riding