The Judiciary Act of 1789

On this day, the Judiciary Act of 1789, officially titled “An Act to Establish the Judicial Courts of the United States,” was signed into law by President George Washington. Article III of the Constitution established a Supreme Court, but left to Congress the task of creating lower federal courts as needed.

President Washington nominated John Jay to preside as chief justice, and John Rutledge, William Cushing, John Blair, Robert Harrison, and James Wilson to be associate justices. On September 26, all six appointments were confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The Act also created 13 judicial districts within the 11 states plus circuit and district courts in each judicial district. The circuit courts, which comprised a district judge and (initially) two Supreme Court justices “riding circuit,” had original jurisdiction over serious crimes and civil cases of at least $500 involving diversity jurisdiction or the United States as plaintiff in common law and equity.

The circuit courts also had appellate jurisdiction over the district courts. The single-judge district courts had jurisdiction primarily over admiralty cases, petty crimes, and suits by the United States for at least $100. Notably, the federal trial courts had not yet received original federal question jurisdiction.

Returning to the SCOTUS, the act also vested in the Supreme Court the power to settle disputes between states and provided for mandatory Supreme Court review of the final judgments of the highest court of any state in cases “where is drawn in question the validity of a treaty or statute of the United States and the decision is against its validity” or “where is drawn in question the validity of a statute of any state on the ground of its being repugnant to the Constitution, treaties or laws of the United States, and the decision is in favor of its validity.”

In 1803, the highest Court first declared an act of Congress unconstitutional, thus establishing the doctrine of judicial review. The court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice John Marshall, is considered one of the foundations of U.S. constitutional law. In Cohens v. Virginia (1821) the Court reaffirmed its right under the Judiciary Act to review all state court judgments in cases arising under the federal Constitution or a law of the United States.

Congress authorized all litigants to either represent themselves (really terrible idea) or to be represented by another person (way better plan). The Act did not prohibit paying a representative to appear in court (brilliant).

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.