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Early Development of the United States Court System

US Courts in the Early Republic

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Article Three of the US Constitution stated that "[t]he 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." The first actions of the newly created Congress was to pass the Judiciary Act of 1789 that made provisions for the Supreme Court. It stated that it would consist of a Chief Justice and five Associate Justices and they would meet in the nation's capital. The first Chief Justice appointed by George Washington was John Jay who served from September 26, 1789 to June 29, 1795. The five Associate Justices were John Rutledge, William Cushing, James Wilson, John Blair, and James Iredell.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 additionally stated that the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court would include appellate jurisdiction in larger civil cases and cases in which state courts ruled on federal statutes. Further, the Supreme Court justices were required to serve on the U.S. circuit courts. Part of the reason for this to make sure that judges from the highest court would be involved in the principal trial courts learn about the procedures of the state courts. However, this was often seen as a hardship. Further, in the early years of the Supreme Court, the justices had little control over which cases they heard. It was not until 1891 that they were able to review courses through certiorari and did away with the right of automatic appeal.

While the Supreme Court is the highest court in the land, it has limited administrative authority over the federal courts. It wasn't until 1934 that Congress gave it the responsibility for drafting rules of federal procedure.

The Judiciary Act also marked out the United States into circuits and districts. Three circuit courts were created. One included the Eastern States, the second included the Middle States, and the third was created for the Southern States. Two justices of the Supreme Court were assigned to each of the circuits and their duty was to periodically go to a city in each state in the circuit and hold a circuit court in combination with the district judge of that state. The point of the circuit courts was to decide cases for most federal criminal cases along with suits between citizens of different states and civil cases brought by the US Government. They also served as appellate courts. The number of Supreme Court justices involved in each circuit court was reduced to one in 1793. As the United States grew, the number of circuit courts and the number of Supreme Court justices grew to ensure that there was one justice for each circuit court. The circuit courts lost the ability to judge on appeals with the creation of the US Circuit Court of Appeals in 1891 and was abolished completely in 1911.

Congress created thirteen district courts, one for each state. The district courts were to sit for cases involving admiralty and maritime cases along as some minor civil and criminal cases. The cases had to arise within the individual district to be seen there. Also, the judges were required to live in their district. They were also involved in the circuit courts and often spent more time on their circuit court duties than their district court duties. The president was to create a "district attorney" in each district. As new states arose, new district courts were created in them and in some cases additional district courts were added in larger states.

Learn more about the US Federal Court System.

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