Debates over the judiciary bill occurred simultaneously with debates in the House of Representatives over a Bill of Rights that Representative James Madison introduced in June 1789. Several states had conditioned ratification of the Constitution on the introduction of such a bill into the First Congress. Among the list of demands for inclusion in the Bill of Rights were provisions to guarantee a fair trial to defendants in federal criminal cases, assurances that no facts found by a jury could be retried on appeal, and the guarantee of jury trials in civil cases. Guaranteeing limits on federal court powers in a Bill of Rights had the potential to defuse some opposition to the judiciary bill. Eventually, the House decided to vote on proposed amendments to the Constitution before completing its deliberations on the judiciary bill. That decision proved to be strategically wise, because it provided a basis for compromise on various provisions in the judiciary bill.
The Judiciary Act eventually passed the Senate by a vote of 14-6. It passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 37-16. The key elements of Judiciary Act of 1789 included:
Section 13 of the Judiciary Act added to the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction. It gave that court the power to decide cases involving writs of mandamus, which are directives from courts of higher jurisdiction to lower tribunals or other government officers commanding them to perform particular acts. Section 25 gave the Supreme Court the power to hear appeals from the top courts of the states in cases that raised questions of the constitutionality of state or federal laws or treaties.
Today the power given to the Supreme Court by Section 25 is known as the power of judicial review. Like the requirement that Supreme Court justices also serve as trial judges on the circuit courts, Section 25 was particularly controversial because it gave the Supreme Court unquestioned power over state court decisions on constitutional questions.Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania voted against the Judiciary Act, complaining that it “was fabricated by a knot of lawyers, who joined hue and cry to run down any person who will venture to say one word about it.” Massachusetts Representative Elbridge Gerry believed that the Judiciary Act contained so many untenable compromises that it should contain a clause “to limit its duration.”
One of the most important compromises reflected in the Judiciary Act was between those who believed federal courts should have the broadest powers allowed under the Constitution and those who wished to restrict the powers of the federal courts as much as possible. The act recognized the continuing importance of state courts and their broad jurisdiction over matters not prohibited by the Constitution. It also gave state courts concurrent trial jurisdiction with federal courts. That is, both state and federal courts could try cases involving federal laws. But the act assured the supremacy of federal law through appeals from state and federal courts to the United States Supreme Court. It addressed concerns about the costs of a federal judicial bureaucracy by not appointing any new judges to staff the circuit courts. Instead, it assigned members of the Supreme Court and district courts to serve as circuit court judges.
Representative James Madison defended the Judiciary Act in the debates in the House, but he admitted that it was “experimental”:
“The bill may not exactly suit any one member of the House, in all its parts—but it is as good as we can at present make it. It is absolutely necessary that a judicial law should pass the present session: Experience may point out its defects.“
John Jay, the nation’s first Chief Justice, later reflected on the challenges the First Congress faced in organizing the federal judiciary:
“A judicial Controul, general & final, was indispensable. The Manner of establishing it, with Powers neither too extensive, nor too limited; rendering it properly independent, and yet properly amenable, involved Questions of no little Intricacy. The Expediency of carrying Justice as it were to every Man’s Door, was obvious; but how to do it in an expedient Manner was far from being apparent.“