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Judiciary Act of 1789 Establishes Federal Courts

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 was to consist of a Chief Justice and five associate justices. In each state and in Kentucky and Maine (then part of other states), a federal judge was to preside over a United States district court, which would hear admiralty and maritime cases and some other minor cases. The middle tier of the judiciary consisted of United States circuit courts, which would serve as the principal trial courts in the federal system and exercise limited appellate jurisdiction. Two Supreme Court justices and the local district judge were to preside in the circuit courts.

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Landmark Legislation: Judiciary Act of 1789