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Judiciary Act of 1801: Definition, Facts, and Significance

Judiciary Act of 1801: Definition, Facts, and Significance
The Midnight Judges Act is considered as one of the most drastic and partisan laws in American political history. Historyplex explains the summary of this Act, also called the Judiciary Act of 1801, by telling you its definition, significance, repeal, besides other facts.
Akshay Chavan
Last Updated: Jul 25, 2017
Did You Know?
The Judiciary Act of 1801 was signed by the second American President, John Adams, and passed in the second session of the country's Sixth Congress.
The United States Constitution has clear rules regarding the structure of the government. Article I explains the structure of Congress (legislative arm of the government), which is authorized to pass laws. Article II deals with the office of the president, who, being the executive branch, has to enforce these laws. Article III gives the rules to establish a federal court system.

While the structure of the US legislature and executive is explained in detail, that of its judiciary, or the federal court system, is not. This is because, the Supreme Court is the only federal court permitted by the Constitution; the question of whether other federal courts can be established or not, and their hierarchical structure, is left to the political establishment. This creates a situation where the judiciary may be exploited to settle political scores, something for which the Judiciary Act of 1801 was intended for. Let us see what the complete purpose of the Judiciary Act of 1801 was.
The Judiciary Act was a Congressional Act passed in the waning months of the Adams Administration in 1801, that aimed to increase the size and power of the federal court system, and pack it with their own political supporters.
► The Judiciary Act reduced the strength of the Supreme Court from 6 to 5 justices, which would become effective when the next vacancy arose.

► It increased the number of judicial districts, each having a single district court, from the preexisting 17 to 22.

► Earlier, these districts were clubbed together into 3 circuits - the Eastern, Middle, and Southern circuits. They were doubled to 6, each with a single circuit court.
► The Act stopped the practice of 'riding the circuit', wherein, Supreme Court judges were required to preside over both, the Supreme Court as well as circuit courts. New judges were to be appointed for the latter.

► It created 16 new circuit judgeships, along with more than 40 justices of peace, all of which were to be appointed by the president. It also created many other court-related posts, like attorneys, marshals, and clerks.
► The judges appointed by this Act came to be known as 'Midnight Judges', because it was said that President Adams stayed up right till the midnight of March 3, 1801, signing their appointment orders, since his term was ending at noon the following day.
► The circuit courts' power was increased to hear those civil cases in which federal law was involved, or the country was party to a dispute.

► The Act came into effect on February 13, 1801. However, it lasted little more than a year, when it was repealed by the Jefferson Administration on March 8, 1802.
Republican Reaction
The Judiciary Act enraged members of the Jefferson Administration, who believed that the outgoing President John Adams was trying to fill all these new posts with his own supporters. Jefferson had defeated Adams in the 1800 polls, but he could not join office until March 4, 1801, which gave Adams and his officials a few more months.
Since the Adams Administration and Congress was dominated by the Federalist party (who believed in a strong national government and court system), they wanted the judiciary to be dominated by the Federalists, who would control the new Jefferson government that was dominated by Republicans (who wanted powerful state governments and courts).
Strengthening of Federal Courts
The main point of contention of the Republican Jeffersonians was the reduction in the size of the Supreme Court, and the creation of newer circuit courts. Since federal judges held positions for life, this meant that Jefferson couldn't appoint a new Supreme Court justice, unless two existing justices either died or retired, or fire the ones Adams had appointed.
Moreover, the Act increased the number of circuit courts in each state, together with their powers, which the Republicans believed, would encourage people to approach them, rather than the state courts. This would empower the federal court system.
Refusal of Appointment
The appointment orders of all judges and officials had to be commissioned by the Secretary of State, after these were approved by the President. While most appointments sanctioned by John Adams received commission, for some reasons, the appointment orders of the justices of Washington county couldn't reach the Secretary's office in time.
When Thomas Jefferson was sworn in, he noticed these pending orders, and asked his Secretary of State John Madison to refuse commission to these Federalist justices. Moreover, when the Act was repealed in 1802, many of the already-appointed judges and officials lost their jobs, as the new judgeships were canceled.
Marbury v. Madison
Most justices accepted the Administration's order refusing them commission quite passively. However, William Marbury, who was to become a Justice of Peace in the District of Columbia decided to sue Secretary Madison, and force him to grant them commission. The Supreme Court ruled that, while the grievances of Marbury and others were justified, it could not force Madison to grant them commission, because it would have to issue a Writ of Mandamus to do this.
Despite being granted the power to issue such writs by the Judiciary Act of 1789, the Supreme Court said that this power was not given to it by the Constitution. Marbury v. Madison thus set the precedent for the power of 'Judicial Review', by which the court can judge if Congressional laws are constitutional or not.
The Judiciary Act of 1801 is remembered today for all the wrong reasons, especially for its partisan nature. However, it paved the way for the Supreme Court's power of Judicial Review, which gave it the power and popularity it is now known for.