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Judiciary Acts of 1801-1925

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Description: Laws passed by Congress establishing the number of justices who will sit on the Supreme Court, creating federal courts other than the Supreme Court, and defining the jurisdiction of all federal courts including, except for what is constitutionally mandated, the Supreme Court.


Significance: The judiciary acts have changed required review of cases by the Supreme Court to discretionary review. This has empowered the Court by eliminating routine appeals affecting only individual litigants and allowing it to deal with those cases in which the decisions are of wide public significance.


The status of the federal judiciary in the beginning of the nineteenth century was determined by the first judiciary act, enacted on September 24, 1789, in the first session of Congress. According to the act, the Supreme Court was to consist of a chief justice and five associate justices. Each justice, in addition to Supreme Court duties, was required to serve as circuit judge in one of the three judicial circuits that ran the length of the Eastern seaboard. These circuit courts had original jurisdiction in some cases, which meant that they acted as the court of the first instance or the trial court. The circuit courts also had appellate jurisdiction in that they heard appeals on some cases from the federal district courts. Riding the circuit immediately proved to be burdensome. Great distances needed to be covered as the court traveled from district to district within the several states that comprised the circuit. At the time, travel conditions were primitive and the health of some justices precluded it. The dual role as a circuit judge also created an anomaly in that an justice might decide a case as circuit judge and then have to decide it again if it was appealed to the Supreme Court.


Judiciary Act of 1801

In February, 1801, the outgoing Federalist Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801. Six new circuit courts were created to be staffed by newly appointed judges. The Supreme Court justices were relieved of their circuit court duties and the number of Supreme Court justices reduced to five. President John Adams, whose term of office was expiring in a few weeks, quickly made the judicial appointments, which were speedily confirmed by the Senate. This law was widely viewed by the incoming administration of President Thomas Jefferson as a ploy by his political opponents to name a new group of federal judges and protect the Supreme Court from any immediate change through an appointment made by Jefferson. Consequently, the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801 was one of the first items of legislative action of the incoming Congress and was passed on March 8, 1802. The Supreme Court justices therefore had to resume their roles as circuit judges, a job that was not eliminated until 1891. Because of population growth, especially in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, an additional justice was added to the Supreme Court in 1807, bringing the total to seven. The next significant legislation was the Judiciary Act of 1837, which created three new judicial circuits and added two justices to the Supreme Court. This enabled President Andrew Jackson to make two appointments and ensured the domination of the Court by Southern Democrats. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln secured passage of legislation to add a tenth seat to the court. Although the appointment of a tenth justice could on the surface be justified because of the creation of a circuit court for California and Oregon, Lincoln sought a majority on the Court in support of his war policies, a group that would uphold the constitutionality of his war powers. Such political maneuvering continued after Lincoln's assassination. His successor, President Andrew Johnson, was anathema to the Radical Republican leadership in Congress. To prevent Johnson from nominating any Supreme Court justices, in 1867 Congress reduced the number of justices on the Court from ten to seven.


Judiciary Act of 1869

The election of popular war hero Ulysses S. Grant to the presidency in 1868 eliminated the reason for the reduction of justices, and the membership of the Court was increased to nine justices in the Judiciary Act of 1869. The act also alleviated some of the circuit court duties of the Supreme Court justices. A separate circuit court judiciary was established consisting of one circuit court judge for each of the nine circuit court districts that now existed. The Supreme Court justices still had circuit court responsibilities, but they now had to attend circuit court proceedings only once every two years. Until 1869, Supreme Court justices did not receive retirement benefits, which meant that a number of justices who found it difficult to carry out their duties because of age or disability hesitated to submit their resignations. This problem was partly remedied by the 1869 act, which provided that any federal judge or justice who attained the age of seventy with at least ten years of service could resign and continue to receive the same salary for life. A problem not addressed by the 1869 act was the increasing caseload of the Court. From the end of the Civil War to the 1890's, it was not unusual for a case to be on the docket for two or three years before it could be argued before the court. Litigants had the right to appeal a decision of a lower federal court to the Supreme Court, which was required to decide the appeal. It was not until the enactment of legislation in 1891 and later in 1925 that the hearing of most appeals would be made discretionary for the Court.


Circuit Court of Appeals Act of 1891

Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller, an energetic and able administrator, put the weight of his office behind court reform. He cultivated the important members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and convinced them of the need for reform. He was advised that the committee members would like recommendations from the justices. The justices, in a report prepared by Justice Horace Gray, recommended the establishment of circuit courts of appeals. Because the Supreme Court justices would not be expected to sit in the new courts, it would relieve them of circuit duty. Senator George F. Edmunds, a key member of the Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill designed to relieve docket congestion in the Supreme Court and to eliminate the circuit court obligations of its justices. The Circuit Court of Appeals Act of 1891 created the U.S. circuit courts of appeals, intermediate appellate courts, to hear appeals from the federal district courts and the federal circuit courts. The circuit courts of appeals were to consist of three justices appointed to each of the nine judicial regions or districts. The act eliminated the circuit riding responsibilities of the Supreme Court justices. The old circuit courts that existed after 1789 were not abrogated by this legislation but were abolished in 1911. The 1891 act also reduced direct appeals to the Supreme Court from the lower federal courts. The decisions of the circuit courts of appeals would be final except in certain cases such as those involving constitutional issues, capital crimes, jurisdictional issues, and those cases where different circuit courts of appeals ruled differently on the same point of law.


The Judiciary Act of 1925

A committee of justices set up by Chief Justice William H. Taft became actively engaged in promoting court reform to relieve the Court's congested docket. The Judiciary Act of 1925 was largely the result of the Court's efforts. According to Justice Taft, the philosophy of the 1925 act was to ensure that the rights of each litigant were protected by the court of the first instance and the trial court, and if still aggrieved, be given one review by an intermediate court of appeal. The function of the Supreme Court was not to remedy the wrongs of particular litigants on appeal on a case-by-case basis but to consider those cases involving principles in which the application would be of wide public significance. The act sharply curtailed appeals of right made to the Court. Decisions of the circuit courts of appeals could be appealed only if the appeals court found a state law invalid under the Constitution or because of a federal law or treaty. In such cases, review was limited to the federal question involved. From state courts, the only appeals of right were in cases where a state law was upheld despite a constitutional challenge or where a federal law or treaty was held invalid by the state court. Having eliminated most of the cases that it was heretofore required to review, the makeup of the Court's docket became largely a discretionary matter. This discretion was exercised by any four of the justices agreeing to issue a writ of certiorari so that a case could be heard and decided by the Court. This transformed the Court from a mere tribunal of the last resort to an institution with the ability to form social policy equal to or beyond that of the executive or legislative branch



Further Reading

  • Texts of the Judiciary Act of 1925 and the Circuit Court of Appeals Act of 1891 together with an extensive reference collection on the Supreme Court can be found in Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court, edited by Elder Witt (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1979). A later, similar publication is the Supreme Court at Work (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1997) by Joan Biskupic and Elder Witt. The most detailed and comprehensive work is an eleven-volume set entitled Supreme Court of the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1971), edited by Paul A. Freund. A chronological history of the Supreme Court and how it developed under each chief justice can be found in Lisa Paddock's Facts About the Supreme Court (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1996) and Bernard Schwartz's A History of the Supreme Court (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). Both explain the reasons behind the judiciary acts and the problems they were designed to correct. A brief commentary and analysis of the 1925 Judiciary Act can be found in Lawrence Baum's The Supreme Court (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1981). To understand what was changed by the Judiciary Acts from 1801 through 1925, it is helpful to know the background and reasons for existing statutes. These are explained fully in Origins of the Federal Judiciary, edited by Maeva Marcus (New York, Oxford University Press, 1982).