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Summary and Significance of the Judiciary Act of 1789 - Explained

Summary and Significance of The Judiciary Act of 1789
The founding fathers of the nation believed in establishing a national judiciary for the fair execution of laws, and hence a federal system of courts came into existence with the Judiciary Act of 1789. This Historyplex post summarizes and explains its significance.
Mary Anthony
Last Updated: Mar 1, 2018
Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania not only staunchly opposed the Judicial Act, but also kept a journal through which we get much of the extensive information about this act.
The Judiciary Act of 1789 constituted a settlement by concession between those who wanted the federal courts to exert full jurisdiction under the Constitution, and those pitted against lower federal courts. The act recognized the authenticity of the state courts and shielded individual rights. At the same time, it also assured the domination of the federal judiciary. Broadening the jurisdiction of the circuit courts to cases where residents were of different states greatly increased the importance of the federal courts.
One of the most debatable provisions of this act was Section 25 which allowed the Supreme Court jurisdiction to hear appeals from the high courts of the states involving questions of the constitutionality of state or federal laws or government offices.
Thus the act broadened the features of federal law in the nation. Given below are its outstanding provisions.
A Brief History
During the depression era of 1780s, the state courts were ridden with cases of debts which mostly concerned the American farmers. Many of them could not pay the millions of dollars they owed to British merchants since the outbreak of Revolution. Since state courts were the debt collection agency for creditors, paper money was invented to incur these debts, but its worth steadily declined leading to farmers suffering from closure and seizure of their farms, thus resulting in the famous Shays' Rebellion. In a bid to frantically handle this situation, judges and juries openly forgave debt cases which in turn lead to judicial chaos.

Under the Articles of Confederation, there was an absence of a national court structure. Some leaders felt that there was no need for a national court system even during the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 to 1789. They felt that the existing state courts were better equipped to deal with judicial issues. Others debated that only a few federal judges were necessary to deal with issues such as the rendition of the Constitution, disputations between states, cases involving the official spokespeople of other nations. They even debated over the fact that national courts should permanently replace the state courts for important issues such as judicial proceeding over debts, contracts, and mercantile.

During the First Congress assembly in the spring of 1789, the founders decided to establish a strong federal system for the nation. By now eleven of the thirteen states had agreed with the Article III of the Constitution which vested all the judiciary powers on a single 'Supreme Court.' Although the Constitution provided significant legislative and executive branches, it limited the position of the Supreme court. The Constitution barely outlined the judiciary structure for the supreme court and the lower courts. It never mentioned the actual size and frequency of the judicial sessions or the number of judges appointed or their reservations and compensations.

The Framers of the Constitution were pushed further by the great divide between the federalists and the anti-federalists. The federalists encouraged the establishment of federal supremacy against local bias, whereas the anti-Federalists strongly resisted the idea of a strong federal government and favored absolute power to the states. Debate stormed over how much power should be assigned by the independent states to the newly centralized government. Federalists who were mostly the Framers of the Constitution, wanted to step-up the power of the central government, while anti-Federalists openly opposed it. The consequence of the disputation between the federal power versus states power yielded towards the creation of the federal court system.
On 7th April, 1789, after attaining its first gathering, the Senate nominated a committee consisting of one senator from each of the ten states, to draft the federal system. Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut obtained the maximum number of votes for this assignment and he was elected as the committee's chairman. By the end of May, Senators Oliver Ellsworth, William Paterson, and Caleb Strong had formulated an elaborate and complex proposal.
Oliver Ellsworth
Oliver Ellsworth
Senators Oliver Ellsworth and William Paterson remained to be the principal drafters of the act. Before mooting over the bill, the Senate circulated printed copies and wooed the views of the constituents, especially among the professional judicial community.
In the meantime the anti-federalists headed by Richard Henry Lee and William Grayson from Virginia, presented amendments to restrain the scope of the act. Anti-federalist and congressman Samuel Livermore, prompted the House to restrict the jurisdiction of inferior federal courts to inquiries of admiralty. They also proposed the non-creation of lower federal courts and extending the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. They strongly contradicted the bill on the reasons that a federal judiciary would impoverish the independent states from the right of exercising their own judicial authorities. They further debated that state courts were more capable in handling federal issues. All these rectifications by the anti-federalists were voted out in the Senate.
James Madison
James Madison
On the other hand, the Federalists headed by James Madison, from Virginia, took a firm stand on the establishment of lower federal courts. The Federalists pin-pointed that federal courts were essential to guarantee the supremacy of the federal laws. After a long standing debate, the Senate passed the act.
According to the records in the Annals of Congress, 1st Congress, 1st Session, the Senate passed the Judiciary Act by a vote of 14 to 6 on 17th July, 1789. The House of Representatives debated over the bill on August 24, August 29, August 31, September 1, September 9, September 12, and September 14, before officially passing the Judiciary Act without a roll call vote on September 17, 1789.
The act set up two sets of federal courts to operate under the U.S. Supreme Court. It also created thirteen federal districts with a federal trial court that had jurisdiction over juvenile criminal cases, admiralty and maritime lawsuits, and civil actions on federal matters.
George Washington
George Washington
The Judiciary Act of 1789 also officially known as "An Act to Establish the Judicial Courts of the United States," was signed into law by President George Washington on 24th September, 1789.
John Jay
John Jay
The president also set up a tribunal of six justices who were to serve the court until death or retirement. He appointed John Jay to preside over as Chief Justice, and John Rutledge, William Cushing, John Blair, Robert Harrison, and James Wilson to be associate justices. On 26th September, 1789, all the six judicial justices were affirmed by the U.S. Senate.
The act consisted of total 35 sections. The main provisions of the act included:

According to Section 1. The Supreme court of the United States shall consist of a Chief Justice and five associate justices, any four of whom shall be a quorum, and shall hold annually the seat of government during two sessions, the first commencing on the first Monday of February, and the other the first Monday of August. That the associate justices shall have precedence according to the date of their commissions, or when the commissions of two or more of them bear date on the same day, according to their respective ages.

Section 2 & 3. That the United States shall be divided into thirteen districts. That a District court be appointed in each of the 13 districts, which would consist of one judge, who shall reside in the district for which he is appointed, and shall be called a District Judge, and shall annually hold four sessions.

Section 4. That the 13 mentioned districts, except those of Maine and Kentucky, shall be divided into three circuits, and be called the Eastern, the Middle, and the Southern circuit. They shall annually hold two Circuit courts in each of the districts, and shall consist of any two justices of the Supreme Court and the district judge of such districts, any two of whom shall constitute a quorum. No district judge shall give a vote in any case of appeal or error from his own decision; but may assign the reasons of such decision.

Section 9. That the district courts shall have, exclusively of the courts of the several States, cognizance of all crimes and offenses that shall be knowable under the authority of the United States, committed within their respective districts, or upon the high seas; where no other punishment than whipping, not exceeding thirty stripes, a fine not exceeding one hundred dollars, or a term of imprisonment not exceeding six months, is to be inflicted; and shall also have undivided original awareness of all civil cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, including all seizures under laws of impost, navigation, or trade of the United States. And shall also have cognizance, simultaneous with the courts of the several States, or the circuit courts, as the case may be, of all causes where an alien sues for a tort only in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States. And shall also have cognizance, simultaneous of all suits at common law where the United States sue, and the matter in dispute amounts, exclusive of costs, to the sum or value of one hundred dollars. And shall also have jurisdiction exclusively of the courts of the several States, of all suits against consuls or vice-consuls, except for offenses above the description aforesaid. And the trial of issues in fact, in the district courts, in all cases except civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, shall be by jury.

Section 11. That the circuit courts shall have original cognizance, concurrent with the courts of the several States, of all suits of a civil nature at common law or in equity, where the matter in dispute exceeds, exclusive of costs, the sum or value of five hundred dollars, and the United States are plaintiffs or petitioners; or an alien is a party, or the suit is between a citizen of the State where the suit is brought and a citizen of another State. And shall have exclusive cognizance of all crimes and offenses cognizable under the authority of the United States, except where this act otherwise provides, or the laws of the United States shall otherwise direct, and concurrent jurisdiction with the district courts of the crimes and offenses cognizable therein. . . . And the circuit courts shall also have appellate jurisdiction from the district courts under the regulations and restrictions hereinafter provided.

Section 13. That the Supreme Court shall have exclusive jurisdiction of all controversies of a civil nature, where a state is a party, except between a state and its citizens; and except also between a state and citizens of other states, or aliens, in which latter case it shall have original but not exclusive jurisdiction. And shall have exclusively all such jurisdiction of suits or proceedings against ambassadors or other public ministers, or their domestics, or domestic servants, as a court of law can have or exercise consistently with the law of nations; and original, but not exclusive jurisdiction of all suits brought by ambassadors or other public ministers, or in which a consul or vice-consul shall be a party. And the trial of issues in fact in the Supreme Court in all actions at law against citizens of the United States shall be by jury. The Supreme Court shall also have appellate jurisdiction from the circuit courts and courts of the several states in the cases hereinafter specially provided for and shall have power to issue writs of prohibition to the district courts, when proceeding as courts of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, and writs of mandamus, in cases warranted by the principle and usages of law, to any courts appointed, or persons holding office under the authority of the United States.

Section 25. That a final judgment or decree in any suit, in the highest court of law or equity of a State in which a decision in the suit could be had, where is drawn in question the validity of a treaty or statute of, or an authority exercised under, the United States, and the decision is against their validity; or where is drawn in question the validity of a statute of, or an authority exercised under, any State, on the ground of their being repugnant to the constitution, treaties, or laws of the United States, and the decision is in favor of such their validity, or where is drawn in question the construction of any clause of the constitution, or of a treaty, or statute of, or commission held under, the United States, and the decision is against the title, right, privilege, or exemption, specially set up or claimed by either party, under such clause of the said Constitution, treaty, statute, or commission, may be re-examined, and reversed or affirmed in the Supreme Court of the United States upon a writ of error, the citation being signed by the chief justice, or judge or chancellor of the court rendering or passing the judgment or decree complained of, or by a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, in the same manner and under the same regulations, and the writ shall have the same effect as if the judgment or decree complained of had been rendered or passed in a circuit court, and the proceedings upon the reversal shall also be the same, except that the Supreme Court, instead of remanding the cause for a final decision as before provided, may, at their discretion, if the cause shall have been once remanded before, proceed to a final decision of the same, and award execution. But no other error shall be assigned or regarded as a ground of reversal in any such case as aforesaid, than such as appears on the face of the record, and immediately respects the before-mentioned questions of validity or construction of the said constitution, treaties, statutes, commissions, or authorities in dispute.

Another feature was that it permitted people to represent themselves in court or appoint an attorney for them. It also established the office of the Attorney General to oversee legal affairs and provide legal advice to the President. Edmund Jennings Randolph was the first Attorney General of the United States. The Act also created the positions of Clerk of Court who managed the administration of each court, and United States Marshal who provided security to the judges.
The Judiciary Act of 1789 instituted the three-tiered Federal Court system and set up the US Supreme Court as head of the Judicial branch of government. It predominantly coordinated with the Supreme Court, establishing the Chief Justice and other judges. In the decades that followed, the judiciary branch of the federal government distinguished itself as the sole judicial organization of the nation.

With the implementation of the Judiciary Act, the number of justices in the U.S. Supreme Court were determined as six. With the growth of new circuits, the number of justices increased in the circuit courts. By 1863, the number of justices on the Supreme Court had exceeded to ten. In 1866, Congress reduced the number of justices to seven; by 1869, the figure was permanently reduced to nine. The structure of the federal judiciary has changed dramatically since the passage of the first Judiciary Act, it is now more streamlined. The federal district courts handle all federal trials while the circuit courts are now known as U.S. courts of appeals without any trial court jurisdiction over any cases. Supreme Court justices no longer preside over circuit courts. Despite these significant changes, the Judiciary Act's idea of creating two levels of federal courts beneath the Supreme Court has remained intact. The act's concern with establishing limits to federal court jurisdiction now seems old-time. At present there are eleven federal circuits, each containing an appeals court and several federal district courts.

Although the structure of the state and federal courts' jurisdictions has changed over the past 200 years, the social system of the federal judiciary remains intact. It officially initiated these key functions: It clarified Article III of the Constitution by creating a hierarchical judicial system, and made the United States Supreme Court the final appellate court, on matters concerning federal law. And for these reasons, the Act remains to be a landmark legislation.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 was the most authoritative and sole handiwork of the Senate which profoundly shaped the nation's judicial and constitutional growth to the present day.