The Marshall Court

Judiciary Act of 1802

On April 29, 1802, the Democratic-Republican Congress enacted its own judiciary act.  That act left intact the fundamental structure of the Judiciary Act of 1789, but it also retained some of the features of the 1801 law that had responded to the rapidly expanding size of the country. Notably, it did not restore the federal judgeships that had been created in 1801.  The central features of the Judiciary Act of 1802 included:

  • Creation of six regional circuit courts 
  • The requirement that one Supreme Court justice and one district court judge serve as a trial judges on each of the six circuits (Kentucky, Tennessee and Maine were excluded to reduce the burden of circuit-riding). 
  • A provision stating that only one judge was required to convene a circuit-court proceeding
  • A provision allowing a party to refer cases to the Supreme Court if two circuit judges heard a case and were split in their opinion 
  • A provision eliminating the Supreme Court’s summer session and providing that the Court could not meet again until February 1803 for a sole annual session

Federalists in Congress were no happier about the abolition of the circuit judgeships than the Democratic-Republicans had been about their creation.  Federalists accused Democratic-Republicans of suspending the 1802 summer term of the Supreme Court to prevent it from ruling on the constitutionality of the Repeal Act and the requirement in the 1802 law that Supreme Court justices sit as trial judges on the circuit courts. 

Judicial Crisis on the Horizon

The Judiciary Act of 1802 created a dilemma for the Justices of the Supreme Court quite separate from the political machinations between the country’s two new political parties.  If the justices carried out their circuit duties while the term of the Supreme Court was suspended, they risked giving the impression that they believed Congress had the constitutional authority to abolish the judgeships created in 1801, to reassign the cases to the new circuit courts, and to require the justices to serve as trial judges.  If the justices refused to perform their circuit court duties under the 1802 law, they faced certain impeachment.  

Chief Justice Marshall corresponded with his colleagues about what to do.  Marshall deferred to their decision, even though he indicated in a letter that he disagreed with it:  the justices attended circuit courts in 1802.  Some scholars think that part of Marshall’s success in developing an institutional identity among the justices was his willingness to listen to and follow their advice in this and other situations.  Meanwhile, a case was working its way through the federal courts that raised constitutional questions about the Repeal Act and the Judiciary Act of 1802.   

Stuart v. Laird (1803)

The case involved a dispute between John Laird, and Hugh Stuart and Charles Carter over a land debt.   In 1801, Laird filed suit in the middle circuit against Stuart and Carter for collection of the debt.  The case was set for trial in January 1802 to determine the amount of Laird’s damages.  By then, however, the judge who had been appointed under the Judiciary Act of 1801 was no longer a circuit judge, because his judgeship had been abolished. The case was reassigned to the new fifth circuit created under the Judiciary Act of 1802.  

Stuart challenged the constitutionality of the reassignment. He contended that Congress lacked authority to adopt the Repeal Act, which had abolished the circuit court to which the case had first been assigned.  He also contended that the Judiciary Act of 1802 was unconstitutional, because Justices of the Supreme Court hold commissions to be Supreme Court Justices, not circuit judges.  

John Marshall, the justice assigned to the fifth circuit, ruled for Laird.  Stuart sought review by the United States Supreme Court.  The case was well publicized, because the stakes were high: if the Supreme Court were to rule in Stuart’s favor, and declare that the Repeal Act and the Judiciary Act of 1802 were unconstitutional, would Congress and President Jefferson defy the Court by refusing to recognize the validity of the decision?  If the Supreme Court upheld the acts, would its independence be compromised because it had capitulated to the partisan branches?    

The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear Stuart v. Laird at its summer session in 1802. However, by eliminating that session, Democratic-Republicans kept this high-stakes constitutional battle off the Supreme Court’s agenda for a time.  Doing so was strategic, because the longer the justices acquiesced to conducting business under the Repeal Act and the Judiciary Act of 1802 the harder it would be for them to claim that the statutes were unconstitutional.