The Judiciary Act of 1789

The Judiciary Act vs. the Bill of Rights

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.  

Key Elements of the Judiciary Act of 1789

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:

  • Supreme Court:  A Chief Justice and five associate justices, with a limited original (trial) jurisdiction and appellate jurisdiction, including the power to hear appeals of decisions from the highest courts of the states that  involved questions of the constitutionality of federal laws.  Number set at six so that two justices could serve as trial judges on each of the three circuit courts described below.
  • Circuit courts located in three geographic areas (eastern, middle and southern): Principal federal trial courts, including jurisdiction over disputes between parties from different states.  Some appellate jurisdiction over cases tried in district courts.  Each circuit presided over by two Supreme Court justices and a district judge.   (Became known as “circuit riding” for Supreme Court justices, a requirement that proved to be very controversial.)  
  • District courts:  Federal trial courts located in each state, with jurisdiction over admiralty, maritime and a limited range of other cases.  Judges to be selected from states in which district court was located.  
  • State courts: Concurrent jurisdiction over many federal questions (giving litigants a choice of state or federal courts in which to try cases).
  • Jury trials:  Required federal courts to select juries according to procedures used by the state courts in that district; guaranteed right to trial for federal criminal defendants in district where defendant lived.
  • Jurisdictional limits: Civil cases required to have relatively high minimum monetary amounts in controversy (thereby protecting small debtors from being sued in federal courts).
  • Administrative infrastructure: Created a system of United States attorneys in each state to prosecute federal crimes and represent the United States in civil actions to which the United States was a party.

Expanding the Powers of the Supreme Court

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.”   

Compromise on the Judiciary Act

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.