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Circuit courts of appeals

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Significance: Supreme Court justices “riding circuit” from 1789 until the 1840's enhanced the presence of the federal judiciary in the states and uniformity in the national law.


With the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress created a three-tiered federal court system with district courts at the base, circuit courts of appeals at an intermediate level, and the Supreme Court at the top. Circuit courts had trial and appellate jurisdiction in multistate circuits and originally were staffed by federal district judges and Supreme Court justices riding circuit, traveling from the capital to the court's location. The first Congress established three geographical circuits encompassing the thirteen district courts. As the jurisdiction and number of federal courts expanded, circuit courts became the primary federal trial courts. Supreme Court justices found circuit riding a hardship, and by the 1840's the practice had ended, leaving the district judges to decide cases at the district and circuit court levels. The Supreme Court became the principal appellate court because appellate review was not available in the circuit courts or judges were reviewing their own district court work. The Judiciary Act of 1869 remedied this by establishing circuit judgeships in each of the then nine circuits. In the 1870's Congress extended federal question jurisdiction to federal courts and dramatically increased their workload. Congress sought to provide relief for the overburdened Court with the Judiciary Act of 1891, which established U.S. circuit courts of appeals and channeled all appellate work through them. With their appellate jurisdiction removed, the old circuit courts continued to try capital cases, tax cases, and some diversity cases. In 1911 Congress made district courts the exclusive federal trial courts, and the circuit courts ceased to exist after December 31 of that year. The U.S. circuit courts of appeal were renamed courts of appeals in 1948.