The Judiciary Act of 1789 — Establishment of the Federal Court System

September 24, 1789

The Judiciary Act of 1789 was a law passed by Congress and signed by President George Washington that established the Federal Court System.

George Washington, Portrait, Stuart

George Washington. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Judiciary Act of 1789 Summary

The Judiciary Act of 1789 was a law passed by the first United States Congress to establish the Federal Court System. The bill was primarily written by Senator Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut and it was one of the first bills considered by the First Congress. It was introduced to the Senate by Richard Henry Lee on June 12. The final version of the bill was approved by the House of Representatives on September 21 and it was signed into law by President George Washington on September 24. The act clarified the roles and powers of the federal courts and established the Office of the Attorney General of the United States. 

Judiciary Act of 1789 Facts

  1. The Constitution established the Judicial Branch and the Supreme Court but left it up to Congress to further define the courts.
  2. The Judiciary Act of 1789 established a judiciary system that included the Supreme Court, District Courts, and Circuit Courts.
  3. The act created six Supreme Court Justices — one Chief Justice and five Associate Judges.
  4. It established 13 District Courts and 3 Circuit Courts.
  5. Each state that had ratified the Constitution had at least one District Court.
  6. Massachusetts and Virginia each had two District Courts. Massachusetts was divided into the District of Massachusetts and the District of Maine. Virginia was divided into the District of Virginia and the District of Kentucky. 
  7. Federal Courts were expanded into North Carolina and Rhode Island after they ratified the Constitution.
  8. Supreme Court Justices were required to “ride the circuit” to hear court cases throughout the states.
  9. The Judiciary Act of 1789 established the Office of the Attorney General of the United States.
  10. The act assigned a United States Attorney and a United States Marshall to each District Court.

Judiciary Act of 1789 Frequently Asked Questions

What part of the Constitution gives Congress the power to establish courts?

Article III, Section 1 of the United States Constitution gave Congress the power to set up the federal court system. The Constitution says, “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.”

What was the purpose of the Judiciary Act of 1789?

The Judiciary Act of 1789 was passed to establish the federal court system in the United States, including the Supreme Court, the lower courts, and the circuit courts. It clarified the roles and powers of the federal courts and established the office of the attorney general of the United States. The act was passed to align with Article III, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution, which vested the judicial power of the United States in one Supreme Court and other inferior courts that Congress may establish from time to time.

Who was the main author of the Judiciary Act of 1789?

The main author of the Judiciary Act of 1789 was Oliver Ellsworth. Ellsworth was a drafter of the United States Constitution and became the third Chief Justice of the United States. Ellsworth was considered to be one of the nation’s leading legal experts and made significant contributions to the development of the United States legal system. William Samuel Johnson also played a role in helping develop the act.

How did the Judiciary Act of 1789 strengthen the Federal Government?

A Federal Court System did not exist under the Articles of Confederation, which was a significant weakness. The Constitution gave Congress the power to create a Federal Court System. The Judiciary Act of 1789 was the first step in doing so. The act was intended to help ensure the operation of the new government by providing a means for resolving disputes and enforcing federal laws.

How did the Judiciary Act of 1789 organize the Federal Courts?

The Judiciary Act of 1789 organized the Federal Court System in the United States, including the Supreme Court, the lower courts, and the circuit courts. It clarified the roles and powers of the Federal Courts by outlining the number of lower courts and the role and salaries of judges. It also established the powers of the courts, the law, and their areas of jurisdiction.

What is the role of the Attorney General of the United States?

The Judiciary Act of 1789 established the Office of the Attorney General of the United States. The Attorney General is the head of the United States Department of Justice and the chief lawyer of the Federal Government. The Attorney General is appointed by the President and serves as a member of the President’s Cabinet. The first Attorney General of the United States was Edmund Jennings Randolph.

How did the Judiciary Act of 1789 impact the power of the Supreme Court to settle disputes between states?

The Judiciary Act of 1789 established the Supreme Court as the highest court in the nation. It outlined the composition of the court, which included one chief judge and five associate judges — called Justices. It also established that all decisions made by the Supreme Court would be final. The act granted the Supreme Court the power to settle disputes between states, which has been an important role of the court throughout its history.

Who did George Washington nominate for the First Supreme Court?

President Washington nominated six men to Congress for the Supreme Court. They were: John Jay, John Rutledge, William Cushing, James Wilson, John Blair, and Robert H. Harrison. Jay was nominated for the position of Chief Justice.

What is the role of Circuit Courts in the Federal Court System?

The Judiciary Act of 1789 established the Circuit Courts, which served as the principal trial courts in the Federal Court System. Each Circuit Court consisted of a local district judge and two Supreme Court justices who presided over the court. The Circuit Courts exercised limited appellate jurisdiction, which is the power of a court to review decisions made by lower courts and potentially change the outcome of those decisions. The Supreme Court justices were required to visit the Circuit Courts, which is where the term “riding the circuit” originated.

How did the Judiciary Act of 1789 address the Writ of Mandamus?

A Writ of Mandamus is a legal order that requires a public official to perform a duty that they are legally obligated to perform. The Judiciary Act of 1789 allowed for the appeal of a decision to a higher court with a petition for a Writ of Mandamus. However, the order could only be issued in exceptional circumstances. This clause was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Marbury v. Madison, and the Judiciary Act of 1789 was the first act of Congress to be partially invalidated by the Supreme Court.

Judiciary Act of 1789 AP US History (APUSH) Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Judiciary Act of 1789 and the United States Consitution for the AP US History Exam.

Judiciary Act of 1789 APUSH Definition

The Judiciary Act of 1789 was a law passed by Congress that set up the Federal Court System of the United States, as provided under the Constitution. The act defined the roles of the Supreme Court, District Courts, Circuit Courts, and the judges assigned to them. It also established the office of the Attorney General of the United States.

American History Central Resources and Related Topics

Judiciary Act of 1789 Video — Review for the AP US History Exam

This video from Hip Hughes provides an overview of the Judiciary Act of 1789.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title The Judiciary Act of 1789 — Establishment of the Federal Court System
  • Date September 24, 1789
  • Author
  • Keywords Judiciary Act of 1789, Supreme Court, District Courts, Circuit Courts, United States Constitution
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 16, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update December 13, 2023

Taxonomies