The Marshall Court

The Judiciary Act of 1801

Soon after Marshall became Chief Justice, the lame-duck Federalist Congress met for the last time.  As predicted, it passed the Judiciary Act of 1801.  The Act boldly overhauled the structure of the federal judiciary.  Congress attempted to justify the statute on the grounds that the Judiciary Act of 1789 had long been in need of revision and that the country’s rapid growth (both states and territories) demanded modernization of the federal judiciary.  Adams signed the act into law in February 1801. Notable changes to the Judiciary Act of 1789 included:

  • Reducing the size of the Supreme Court from 6 to 5 justices (to be accomplished when the next vacancy occurred)
  • Replacing the three existing federal circuit courts with six new federal circuit courts
  • Adding sixteen circuit-court judgeships to serve on the new circuits, thereby eliminating the circuit-riding duties of Supreme Court justices
  • Giving circuit courts power to hear all cases arising under the Constitution and the laws of the United States
  • Relaxing rules that had limited federal court jurisdiction over cases involving parties from different states (making it easier for creditors to sue debtors in federal rather than state courts)
  • Giving federal courts exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy litigation 
  • Making it easier for litigants to remove cases from state courts into federal courts

The transparent intent of the1801 statute was to increase significantly the power of the federal courts and to give the outgoing Federalist President an opportunity to fill the new judgeships.  

The Midnight Judges Act

Democratic-Republicans were furious over the Judiciary Act of 1801.  They contended that it was a blatant move to convert the national courts into a Federalist Party preserve notwithstanding that the Federalist Party had been repudiated in the election of 1800.  They insisted that the outgoing Congress had created more federal courts and judgeships to take power away from state courts and state governments generally, and to secure patronage positions for partisan Federalist judges.   

John Adams had fewer than three weeks left in his presidency when he signed the Judiciary Act of 1801.  He had only three days left when he signed the Organic Act.  He scrambled to nominate the circuit court judges that were authorized by the two statutes and the justices of the peace.  His nominees included James Marshall, the younger brother of John Marshall, to serve on the District of Columbia circuit court.  The outgoing Senate quickly confirmed all of Adams’ nominees.  Thomas Jefferson declared Adams’ appointments an “outrage to decency.”  He said the new judges were among his “most ardent political enemies.”  

A Stacked Judiciary

Adams had filled thirteen of the sixteen judgeships created by the Judiciary Act of 1801 by the time he left office at midnight on March 3, 1801, and all but one of the circuit positions created by the Organic Act.  He also had filled the justice-of-the-peace positions, but not all of their commissions had been delivered by the time Adams left office.  Jefferson entered office with three openings on the Fifth circuit court and one on the District of Columbia circuit court.  He filled the four vacant circuit court positions, even as he was planning to work with Congress to abolish the sixteen judgeships that had been created by the Judiciary Act of 1801.

Early in 1802, Kentucky Senator John Breckenridge introduced a bill to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801.  Democratic-Republicans had reasons to be angry at the Federalist Party for trying to expand and pack the federal courts with judges of their choosing.  Federalist judges, for example, had willingly enforced the attempts of the Adams’ Administration to suppress political dissent during the undeclared war with France that had begun in 1798.   Thomas Jefferson’s then close political ally, journalist Thomas Callender, was one of those who had been jailed and fined by federal judges under the Sedition Act for criticizing President Adams.  Challenges to the Sedition Act never reached the Supreme Court before Congress allowed it to expire, but its enforcement in inferior federal courts seriously blemished the reputations of the judges who served on those courts.