The Midnight Judges and the Judiciary Act of 1801

February 13, 1801

The Judiciary Act of 1801 was signed into law by President John Adams on February 13, 1801. It expanded the Federal Court system, allowing him to appoint political allies to new positions. The appointments are known as the “Midnight Judges” and were quickly repealed by Thomas Jefferson.

John Adams, Portrait, Stuart

John Adams. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Summary of the Midnight Judges and the Judiciary Act of 1801

The Judiciary Act of 1801 — also known as the “Midnight Judges Act” — was passed at the end of the administration of President John Adams, a member of the Federalist Party. Historically, the move has been viewed as an attempt by the Federalists to retain power in the wake of the election of Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson to the presidency. The provisions of the act significantly altered the size and scope of the Supreme Court and made changes to the circuit court system that required the nomination and appointment of new judges. Adams mainly appointed friends and members of the Federalist Party to the new positions and supposedly worked late into the night of his last day in office to complete the necessary paperwork. As a result, the judges he appointed — and the Federalist-controlled Senate approved — are known as the “Midnight Judges.” The revised court system and subsequent appointments were controversial and the act was repealed and replaced in 1802. However, one of the appointees, William Marbury, sued the government over the issue. The case went to the Supreme Court and resulted in the establishment of the concept of Judicial Review.

Quick Facts About the Midnight Judges and the Judiciary Act of 1801

  1. The 1801 Judiciary Act — also known as the Midnight Judges Act — was signed into law by President John Adams on February 13, 1801.
  2. The act enlarged the Federal Court System by adding new circuit courts, along with judges, justices of the peace, clerks, and attorneys needed to run the courts.
  3. The act was repealed and then replaced by President Thomas Jefferson on March 8, 1802, with the Judiciary Act of 1802.
  4. Adams was a Federalist and Jefferson was a Democrat-Republican, and political differences between the parties played a role in the passing and repeal of the act.
  5. The 16 judges appointed to the new circuit courts were called “Midnight Judges” because they were last-minute appointments, however, the term is generally applied to all the appointments Adams made at the end of his term.
Thomas Jefferson, Painting, Rembrandt Peale
Thomas Jefferson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

History and Overview of the Midnight Judges and Judiciary Act of 1801

On November 22, 1800, President John Adams delivered his annual address to Congress and discussed organizing the government of the District of Columbia and reforming the federal court system. The speech was delivered while the nation waited for the results of the Election of 1800. The next four weeks were difficult, personally and professionally for Adams. First, he learned his son Charles had died. Then, on December 16, the news came that he had lost the election to either Thomas Jefferson or Aaron Burr, both Democratic-Republicans. Jefferson and Burr received the same number of votes in the Electoral College, so the matter was to be decided by the House of Representatives.

John Adams Begins the Search for a New Chief Justice

Adams had less than three months left in office, which would make it difficult to accomplish anything. Further, many members of the Federalist Party blamed him for losing the election and wanted nothing to do with him. However, he turned his attention to the courts. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Oliver Ellsworth, had tendered his resignation on December 15 and Adams needed to find a replacement. He nominated John Jay, who had been the first Chief Justice, and tried to convince him to accept the appointment. Jay declined and Adams continued his search.

The Federalists Decide to Overhaul the Court System

Soon after, Congress, which was controlled by the Federalists, turned its attention to a bill that would overhaul the court system. The bill was not new, development started in the spring of 1800. However, with the loss of the White House and seats in Congress, the Federalists decided to finish and pass the bill before the Democratic-Republicans took control on March 4, 1801. The bill itself was meant to streamline the courts and make the system more efficient, however, by passing it so late, it would also give the Federalists an opportunity to have their own party members appointed to the new judgeships — and opened it up to criticism from the Democratic-Republicans.

John Marshall Becomes Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court

One of the provisions of the new judicial bill reduced the number of justices on the Supreme Court from six to five, in order to avoid ties in voting. Since Ellsworth had resigned, the court had five justices. If the bill were to pass then there would be no need to nominate a new Chief Justice.

Adams would have to nominate one of the sitting justices. However, on January 19, 1801, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert, a Federalist, suggested Adams should move forward and nominate someone. Adams and his Secretary of State, John Marshall, met later that day and Adams decided Marshall would be his nominee for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Marshall was confirmed by the Senate on January 27, 1801. Despite the new appointment, Marshall continued to serve as Secretary of State for the last weeks of Adams’ term.

John Marshall, Supreme Court Justice, Painting, Jarvis
John Marshall. Image Source: WhiteHouseHistory.org.

Congress Passes the Judiciary Act of 1801

Congress returned to the business of the bill that reorganized the courts and passed it on February 13, 1801. Adams signed it that same day and the Judiciary Act of 1801 became law.

Adams Appoints the Midnight Judges

With less than a month to go in the office, Adams started looking for nominees to fill the new judgeships. Adams nominated judges on February 20. On February 24, Congress passed the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801, which set up two new counties and courts for them. Adams made nominations for those judgeships as well. As it turned out, most of the nominees were Federalists.

Thomas Jefferson is Elected President

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives was still working to determine whether Jefferson or Burr would be the next President. The issue was finally decided on February 17, after 35 votes. Jefferson won and was set to be sworn in on March 4.

Delivery of Commissions Fails

The commissions for the new judges were completed by Adams and Marshall on March 3. Marshall left them for his clerk to make sure they were properly delivered to the recipients. However, some of the commissions were not delivered to the new justices of the peace in the District of Columbia.

Jefferson was sworn in on the 4th. The next day, he visited the State Department where he is said to have come across the undelivered commissions, including the commission for William Marbury of Washington County. Jefferson ordered the documents to be held by the State Department. Later, he made his own nominations for the positions.

What did the Judiciary Act of 1801 do?

The Judiciary Act of 1801 that created the Midnight Judges was a significant event in the early years of the United States. This act was signed into law by President John Adams on February 13, 1801, just three weeks before the end of his time as President of the United States, and reorganized the court system, which was established by the Judiciary Act of 1789.

The Judiciary Act of 1801 made changes to the courts, including:

  1. Reducing the number of seats on the U.S. Supreme Court from six justices to five.
  2. Eliminating the requirement for Supreme Court justices to hear cases in the circuit courts.
  3. Eliminating the existing circuit courts and establishing six new ones.
  4. Creating 16 new judgeships to oversee the new circuit courts.

Along with the Judiciary Act of 1801, Adams signed the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801. It created two counties in the District of Columbia — Washington and Alexandria — and created new courts for each.

Who are the Midnight Judges?

The term “Midnight Judges” is generally used to refer to all the late-term nominations for new judgeships that Adams made. However, the term only truly applies to the 16 new circuit court judges that he nominated.

Adams, a Federalist, had run for reelection to a second term as President in 1800. However, his four years in office were controversial and he lost the election to Thomas Jefferson, the candidate for the Democrat-Republican Party.

The time period between the election and the inauguration in March was considered the “lame duck session,” however, the Federalists were concerned about how much power they would lose once Jefferson and other Democrat-Republicans took office. In an effort to maintain some control over the nation’s direction, the Federalists passed two acts — the Judiciary Act of 1801 and the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801. The Judiciary Act was needed for better organization of the court system and the Organic Act was needed to establish a local government for the District of Columbia. 

Adams nominated 42 judges to the newly-created courts of the District of Columbia and 16 judges to the new circuit court positions. Most of the nominees were Federalists and they were confirmed by the Senate on March 3, 1801. However, the matter of completing the paperwork and delivering it on time proved problematic in the long run for the Federalists.

Legend has it that Adams stayed up late into the night, signing the paperwork necessary for the last-minute appointments. However, it is more likely Adams was done with the work well before midnight. Historians tend to agree it was by 9:00 p.m. Adams signed the official commissions for each appointment and Secretary of State John Marshall sealed them and left them to be delivered by his clerk. However, none of the 23 individuals appointed to the new Washington County courts in the District of Columbia received their commissions before Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated on March 4, 1801.

Federalist View — A Stronger, More Efficient Court System

The First Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which established three circuit courts but did not appoint full-time judges to them. Each circuit court had two Supreme Court justices assigned to it, along with a local district court judge. Judges often had to travel long distances to hear the cases, which caused problems.

First, cases backed up when judges were not present. Second, it was exhausting for the judges. James Iredell of North Carolina is said to have been so worn out from “riding the circuit” that he died from it. The Judiciary Act of 1801 eliminated the need for judges to continue riding their horses or traveling by stagecoach for hundreds of miles.

The Judiciary Act of 1801 also gave federal courts jurisdiction over any cases that dealt with the Constitution or federal law, making it easier for people to take their cases to a federal court. To the Federalists, the changes established a stronger court system under the jurisdiction of the Constitution, which strengthened the Federal Government.

Democratic-Republican View — Overreach of Federal Power

Jefferson and the Democrat-Republicans opposed the act and the new judges and mockingly referred to them as the “Midnight Judges.” They also preferred the local and state courts over the new federal courts. They saw the expanded federal courts as an overreach on the part of the government and the Federalists.

Over the course of the year, Congress debated the situation, and finally repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801 in January 1802. Then, on March 8, 1802, Jefferson signed the Judiciary Act of 1802. The new act essentially restored the original court system, including circuit riding. They justified the reversal by saying there were not enough cases filed to justify 16 new judges.

However, the reduction of the court system created a Constitutional issue because it naturally meant the 16 circuit court judges were no longer needed. Article III of the Constitution, which deals with the Judicial Branch, did not provide a method for removing judges from office other than impeachment.

As far as the Democratic-Republicans were concerned, they eliminated courts, not judges. However, many Federalists, including Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, saw it the other way and viewed the elimination of the judgeships as unconstitutional.

Midnight Judge William Marbury Files Suit

Further complicating the situation were the 12 signed but undelivered commissions that Jefferson found in the State Department. In an effort to limit Federalist influence, he reappointed 6 Republicans and 6 Federalists for the judgeships. One of those who lost his judgeship in the incident was William Marbury. When Jefferson refused to allow him to take office, Marbury sued Secretary of State James Madison. The case was heard by the Supreme Court in 1803, which ruled that a portion of the 1789 Judiciary Act was unconstitutional and established the concept of Judicial Review.

Significance of the Midnight Judges and Judiciary Act of 1801

The Judiciary Act of 1801 is important to United States History because it eventually led to Marbury v. Madison. The case established the concept of Judicial Review, which gave the Supreme Court the power to overrule state and federal laws if they are unconstitutional — in conflict with the Constitution. The controversy over the Judiciary Act of 1801 is also an example of how the early divide between political parties affected the course of the nation.

Impact of the Midnight Judges and Judiciary Act of 1801

Marbury v. Madison

Marbury v. Madison was a landmark case in American judicial history that solidified the country’s system of checks and balances and gave the judicial branch equal power with the executive and legislative branches. The case arose from President John Adams’ appointment of Federalist William Marbury as a justice of the peace in the District of Columbia, but Secretary of State James Madison refused to deliver the paperwork. Marbury asked the Supreme Court to issue a Writ of Mandamus to force delivery but Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Supreme Court did not have the authority to issue writs. The ruling declared the provision in the Judiciary Act of 1789 that allowed the Supreme Court to issue writs to be unconstitutional. It established Judicial Review, giving the Supreme Court the power to review acts of Congress and the ability to declare them unconstitutional if they conflict with the Constitution. In the end, Marbury never received his commission.

Impeachment of Samuel Chase

The repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801 resulted in the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. Chase was a Federalist appointed by George Washington and publicly attacked the repeal, calling it a threat to property and personal liberty. President Thomas Jefferson suggested to his supporters in the U.S. House of Representatives that Chase be impeached for his attack on the principles of the Constitution. The House took Jefferson’s suggestion and impeached Chase in 1804, but he was acquitted by the Senate in March 1805 with Vice President Aaron Burr presiding over the trial. This was the first and only impeachment of a sitting Supreme Court Justice in American history.

District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801

The District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801 was legislation enacted by the U.S. Congress that placed the District of Columbia under the control of the U.S. Congress and divided it into two counties: Washington County and Alexandria County. The act left the charters of Georgetown and Alexandria unchanged and kept the common law of both Maryland and Virginia in effect within the district. The act also established a court system in each of the new counties.

Midnight Judges and Judiciary Act of 1801 APUSH Notes

Use the following links and videos to study the Midnight Judges, the United States Constitution, and the Federal Court System for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Midnight Judges Definition for APUSH

The definition of the Midnight Judes for APUSH is the judges nominated by outgoing President John Adams and approved by the Federalist-controlled Senate in February and March of 1801. 16 of the Midnight Judges were federal circuit court judges, and their positions were eliminated by the Judiciary Act of 1802. Some of the other nominees were justices of the peace for the District of Columbia. The most famous is William Marbury. Marbury’s commission was never delivered, so he sued Secretary of State James Madison. The case resulted in the establishment of Judicial Review for the Supreme Court.

Judiciary Act of 1801 Definition for APUSH

The definition of the Judiciary Act of 1801 for APUSH is a law enacted by Congress and signed by President John Adams on February 13, 1801, that overhauled the federal court system. The act reduced the number of Supreme Court justices from six to five, eliminated circuit riding, and also expanded the circuit court system that was established by the Judiciary Act of 1789.

Marbury vs. Madison: What Was the Case About?

This video from History.com discusses the Midnight Judges and Marbury v. Madison.

Learn More on American History Central

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Midnight Judges and the Judiciary Act of 1801
  • Date February 13, 1801
  • Author
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 30, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update December 13, 2023

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