The 227th Anniversary of the Judiciary Act of 1789

Today marks the 227th anniversary of the Judiciary Act of 1789. The Judiciary Act of 1789, officially titled “An Act to establish the Judicial Courts of the United States,” was passed by Congress and signed by President George Washington on September 24, 1789.

Article III of the U.S. Constitution had only sketched out the nature of the federal judiciary in very general terms. This Act provided for its detailed organization.

 The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.

Acting on this authority, Congress created a three-part judiciary. The Supreme Court consisted of a Chief Justice and five associate justices (an even number for anyone who is counting). The same day that the Judiciary Act was passed and signed, President Washington nominated John Jay to preside as chief justice, and John Rutledge, James Wilson, John Blair, Robert Harrison, and William Cushing to be associate justices. Two days later, on September 26, all six appointments were confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The middle tier of the judiciary was made up of federal circuit courts and served as the principal trial courts in the federal system. They also exercised limited appellate jurisdiction.

A federal judge was designated to preside over a United States district court in each state and in Kentucky and Maine, which were then part of other states. These courts heard admiralty and maritime cases, as well as other minor disputes.

During the debates over whether or not to ratify the Constitution, a number of citizens raised concerns about the federal judiciary encroaching on state courts and restricting civil liberties. The Judiciary Act of 1789 addressed these concerns by allowing state courts to exercise concurrent jurisdiction with federal courts in a number of matters. For example, Section 11 reads,

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. (emphasis added)

The debate over the Judiciary Act occurred at the same time that the Congress was considering amendments to the Constitution (these amendments would become the Bill of Rights). The Bill of Rights, ultimately, offered further assurance that the federal courts would respect both the states and traditional liberties of citizens such as the right to trial by jury.


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