Judiciary Act of 1801 II
Bill Long 10/30/07
Provisions of the Act
Some scholars have referred to the Judiciary Act of 1801, also known as the "Circuit Court Act" (signed by President John Adams on Friday, Feb. 13, 1801), as one of the most significant pieces of legislation concerning the judicial branch in our history. Even though it was repealed by the Republican-dominated Congress on March 8, 1802, it laid out some important issues, especially of court organization, that are still with us.
Before talking about this Act and its significant provisions, I want to say a word about another law with which it often is confused. The Organic Act for the District of Columbia was passed and signed on Friday, Feb. 27, 1801, five days before Jefferson took office. This Act, 2 Stat. 103-108, provided for a "circuit court of the district of Columbia" consisting of one chief judges and two assistant judges (Sec. 3), as well as an unspecified number of justices of the peace. The precise language is:
"Be it further enacted, That there shall be appointed in and for each of the said counties (two in DC--Alexandria and Washington) such number of discreet persons to be justices of the peace, as the President of the United States shall from time to time think expedient, to continue in office five years..." (Sec. 11).
Adams appointed a total of 53 individuals provided under the Act, , including justices of the peace on March 3, the day before he left office. He signed their Commissions and Secretary of State John Marshall affixed the Great Seal of the United States to these Commissions, but they weren't delivered before midnight of March. 3, when Adams officially left office. One of the intended recipients of a Commission, William Marbury, decided to sue to receive it when the new Secretary of State, James Madison, refused to deliver it. This, then, inaugurated the famous case of Marbury v. Madison.
Thus, it is improper to say that the Judiciary Act of 1801, 2 Stat. 89-100, created the justices of the peace at issue in Marbury. It was the Feb. 27 Organic Act that did it.
Walking Through the Judiciary Act of 1801
The primary things accomplished by this act were three: (1) To create/revamp the Circuit Courts into six circuits, staffed by three full-time Circuit Court judges, except in the 6th Circuit (KY, TN, Ohio and Ind. Territories), which would only have one judge. This would create 16 new federal judgeships. (2) To reduce by one the number of Justices on the Supreme Court, from six to five. Since John Marshall had just been confirmed as Chief Justice in a six-man Court, as specified under the Judiciary Act of 1789, the next vacancy on the Court would not give Thomas Jefferson a Supreme Court appointment; and (3) To eliminate the circuit-riding responsibilities of the US Supreme Court justices. This had been highlighted by the Attorney General as early as 1790 as a burden on the administration of justice.
Here is the act in a nutshell. After stating that the Supreme Court will have two sessions a year (December and June), and that it is authorized to issue various kinds of writs (sec. 2), and that it shall consist of five members (sec. 3), the statute goes on to name all the districts in which there were district courts in the US. It might be helpful, for sake of completeness, to specify these districts.
The Already-Existing District Courts
(1) That part of Massachusetts called Maine (Maine wouldn't become a state until 1820)--the district of Maine; (2) New Hampshire; (3) the rest of Massachusetts; (4) Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, called district of Rhode Island; (5) Connecticut; (6) Vermont; (7) Albany; (8) New York; (9) Jersey; (10) Eastern District of Pennsylvania; (11) Western District of Pennsylvania; (12) Delaware; (13) Maryland; (14) Eastern District of Virginia; (15) Western District of Virginia; (16) North Carolina; (17) South Carolina; (18) Georgia; (19) District of East Tennessee; (20) District of West Tennessee; (21) Kentucky; (22) District of Ohio (including Ohio and Indiana Territories).
Every treatment of the statute I have seen says that 23 districts were specified. I only count 22 in the statute. Perhaps they also mean one for Washington DC, but that isn't in the statute. Hm...
The first circuit consisted of ME, NH, MA, RI; the second was CT, VT, Albany and NY; the third was Jersey, EPA, WPA, DE; the fourth was MD, EVA, WVA; the fifth was NC, SC, GA and the sixth was ET, WT, KY and OH. As mentioned previously, the first five circuits each had three Circuit Judges, while the sixth consisted of one Circuit Judge and the judges of the Districts of KY and TN. Two judges would constitute a quorum for doing business. After describing the sessions when the Circuit Courts met, the statute gave authority to the judges to adjourn or cancel sessions if they perceived it would be dangerous to hold court. Sec. 11 of the law specifies the jurisdiction of the circuit courts. They were not primarily courts of appeals; that only became their primary function near the end of the 19th century. Instead they were to hear all crimes and offenses under the laws of the United states; all crimes committed on the high seas; and many other causes of action. One of the truly interesting issues for legal aficionados are the notions of jurisdiction and procedure. I won't go into those here in detail, but we already see what will become interesting issues in the history of administration of justice in this land--which federal court might have jurisdiction of a case (district or circuit) and which state court might also have jurisdiction.
Sec. 21 of the Act specifies the creation of yet more districts: (1) splitting the district of Jersey into East and West Jersey; (2) a district of Potomac; (3) a district of Norfolk; (4) three districts in North Carolina. So, if my numbers are right, this creates an additional 1 + 1 + 1 + 2 districts, which should bring us to 27 of them. After several other procedural sections, the Act provides that "there shall be appointed for each of the districts hereby established, a person learned in the law, to act as attorney for the United States within such district" (Sec. 37). Finally, and most important from the perspective of the judges, is the salary provision (Sec. 41). It reads:
"That each of the circuit judges of the United States, to be appointed by virtue of this act shall be allowed as a compensation for his services, an annual salary of two thousand dollars...except the judges of the sixth circuit, who shall be allowed fifteen hundred dollars."
One scholar who has looked at this law in detail said that the federal judicial budget for the next year increased $31,500 for judges...exactly what one would have expected from this law.
Though most of this Act is "housekeeping," the provision of 16 additional circuit judges (no new district court judges are envisioned) and elimination of the circuit-riding duties of the Supreme Court Justices, stand out as significant political statements, too. Let's meet some of these people whom Adams named or tried to name...
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long