The Judiciary Act of 1789

One of the first acts of the United States Senate was to appoint a committee, with one senator from each state, to draft legislation to transform the federal judiciary from a sketch to a completed picture.  Some members of that committee had been delegates to the Constitutional Convention; several had participated in state ratifying conventions.  Senator Oliver Ellsworth was elected to chair the committee.  

Ellsworth, a lawyer, had been the Connecticut delegate to the Constitutional Convention who proposed the so-called Connecticut Compromise to resolve the disagreement between the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan over representation in Congress.  That compromise resulted in representation of the population in the House of Representatives and representation of the states in the Senate.  Ellsworth had helped to assure that the states would have a powerful voice in the new national government, and he undoubtedly understood that the states would have strong opinions about the structure and powers of the federal courts.  Ellsworth was the primary drafter of “An Act to establish the Judicial Courts of the United States,” commonly known as the Judiciary Act of 1789.  He apparently consulted closely with New Jersey Senator William Paterson (author of the New Jersey Plan at the Constitutional Convention).   

Ellsworth’s outline for the national judiciary, which he presented in May 1789, set the size of the Supreme Court at six and recommended creation of two levels of inferior courts, district and circuit. It gave the Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction over decisions of top state courts involving questions of federal law.  It also recommended an administrative infrastructure to serve the federal courts.  

Debates over the Judiciary Act

Debates over the Judiciary Act, not surprisingly, frequently seemed a reprise of the ratification debates  Some members of Congress, for example,wanted no system of lower federal courts at all.  They trusted state courts to decide all cases involving federal law.  Other members favored creation of federal district courts, but argued that the jurisdiction of those courts should be limited to admiralty and maritime cases.  Yet other members urged the creation of a system of powerful federal courts with jurisdiction as broad as the Constitution would allow. Like the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, members of the first Congress would have to agree to compromises about the judiciary.

The most heated Congressional debates focused on federal court jurisdiction over controversies involving states, states and citizens of other states, and citizens of different states.  Some believed that  out-of-state litigants would not be able to  get a fair hearing in state courts.  Others argued that  local “prejudices” would persist among states to protect their unique systems of justice.  Still others contended that federal courts might swallow up state courts altogether or render them useless by reversing state court judgments on appeal.      

Concerns Over the Judiciary Act

Opponents of the judiciary bill raised practical as well as ideological concerns about the federal judiciary:

  • Uniting legal and equitable powers in the same courts was dangerous, because judges might exercise their equitable powers to subvert the law.
  • Federal judges could use their equitable powers to limit the power of juries.
  • A federal judicial bureaucracy would be too expensive (a critical matter given the new nation’s debt coming out of the Revolution).
  • Federal courts would not be easily accessible to the people.
  • Qualifications for jurors in federal cases and jury instructions would contradict state practices.
  • Uniform application of federal laws would fail to respect entrenched state and regional differences.