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Circuit riding

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Significance: Direct involvement in jurisdictions outside the nation's capital enabled Supreme Court justices to stay attuned to local law as they contributed to the formation of national law.


The Judiciary Act of 1789 divided the states into three circuits, the eastern, the middle, and the southern, with a circuit court consisting of two Supreme Court justices and one federal district judge meeting twice a year in each region. In 1793 Congress reduced the number of justices on any circuit court bench from two to one. Both original and appellate jurisdiction were in the hands of the justices, creating a controversial dual role. In response to potential conflicts of interest for justices and the rigors of circuit travel, circuit riding was eliminated by a section in the Judiciary Act of 1801. However, the Judiciary Act of 1802 repealed the 1801 act, assigning each justice a specific circuit without rotation. To meet the needs of territorial expansion, the Judiciary Act of 1837 added new circuits and new justices until there were nine of each. In 1869 Congress approved a measure authorizing the appointment of nine new circuit judges, reducing the justices’ circuit duties to one term every two years. The Judiciary Act of 1891 lightened the court docket of the justices by creating U.S. circuit courts of appeals and assigning all appellate work to them. However, the original circuit courts were not abolished until 1911.