Article III of the Constitution establishes that there shall be a Supreme Court and other lower federal courts that Congress can create. Because Article III does not include many specifics about the structure of these courts, as one of its first orders of business, Congress passes the Judiciary Act of 1789. Sen. Oliver Ellsworth, who was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, takes the lead in drafting the legislation. This law creates a six-person Supreme Court (one chief justice and five associate justices) and three Circuit Courts and 13 District Courts in the major cities. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court has nine justices (the chief justice and eight associate justices), 13 U.S. Courts of Appeal (to hear appeals of trial courts) and 94 District Courts (the trial courts). Other federal cases are heard through the federal bankruptcy courts and the court of claims. The Constitution and this Act, which has been modified over the years, also clarified what limited types of cases would be heard in the federal courts, leaving all other matters to the state courts.
Three of the newly appointed U.S. Supreme Court justices convene in New York, the temporary capital, for the first time. The Judiciary Act requires the justices to sit twice a year, but as the justices begin their first term, there is little for them to do. According to the Supreme Court Historical Society, appeals from lower tribunals came slowly. For its first three years, the Court has almost no business at all.
The U.S. Supreme Court joins Congress and the president in Philadelphia, convening for two days in Independence Hall for its February term. In August, the Court moves to Old City Hall, where it will continue to meet for the next 10 years. Under the Judiciary Act of 1789, the justices were required to ride the circuits to hear cases and preside over the circuit courts, a policy that the justices considered unnecessary and highly exhausting.
President George Washington nominates John Rutledge to be chief justice of the United States. Rutledge, who served as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, had resigned to become chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court. Because Rutledge publicly denounced the Jay Treaty, which the Senate had approved, outraged senators vote 14-10 against his nomination, making him the first chief justice nominee to be rejected.
Along with the rest of the federal government, the U.S. Supreme Court sets up shop in Washington, D.C., in the Capitol. Although forced to use a variety of rooms, the Court eventually occupies a room in the basement, beneath the Senate. By 1861, the Court will move upstairs to the Old Senate Chamber until 1935. Since there is no individual office space, the justices often work at home.
Chief Justice John Marshall establishes the principle of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison. In his last few hours in office, President John Adams makes a series of appointments to fill as many posts as possible with Federalists, including William Marbury as a federal justice of the peace. However, when Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, takes over, he tells Secretary of State James Madison not to deliver the appointment. Marbury sues and asks the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus, requiring Madison to deliver the appointment. The Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the Court such power. The Court rules that while Marbury is entitled to his appointment, the law is unconstitutional, and the Court cannot issue the writ. Thus, the Court asserts the supremacy of the Constitution over any conflicting law and sets the precedent for judicial review over the other branches of federal government.
Congress establishes the Court of Claims, giving it jurisdiction to decide the validity of all monetary claims based upon the laws, regulations, or contracts with the U.S. government. The three judges on the Court of Claims are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate for lifetime appointments. In 1982, Congress will abolish the Court of Claims and will divide its jurisdiction between the new U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The new Republican majorities in Congress expand the U.S. Supreme Court to 10 justices, allowing President Abraham Lincoln to make an appointment to the court. In 1867, Congress will reduce the number of justices to eight to prevent Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, from appointing any new justices. Congress acts because it disagrees with Johnson’s Reconstruction policies. After Johnson’s term, Congress will bring the Court back to nine justices.
Since the Judiciary Act of 1789, Supreme Court justices had “ridden circuit,” serving as trial judges for the circuit courts. In 1891, Congress creates the U.S. Courts of Appeals, but allows the circuit courts to continue for 20 more years. In 1911, the circuit courts will be abolished and their jurisdictions will be transferred to the district courts. In the early 21st century, there will be 94 U.S. judicial districts organized into 12 regional circuits, each one having a U.S. Court of Appeals.
The growth of the federal courts in the 20th century forces Congress to improve the courts’ administration and operations. In 1922, Congress establishes the Conference of Senior Circuit Judges, which in 1948 will be renamed the Judicial Conference of the United States. The conference is to “serve as the principal policy-making body concerned with the administration of the United States Courts.” It keeps track of the business of the federal courts and promotes uniformity of procedures and conduct of court business.
Established by Congress, the U.S. Tax Court gives taxpayers a place to dispute decisions made by the Internal Revenue Service involving payment of federal income, gift or estate taxes. Its decisions may be appealed to the federal courts of appeals and are subject to review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Today, 19 tax court judges are appointed by the president for terms of 15 years. The Tax Court’s offices are in Washington, D.C., but the judges travel across the country and conduct trials in 80 cities.
Although he began his lobbying efforts for a new Supreme Court building in 1912, it takes nine years for Chief Justice William Howard Taft to convince Congress of the need for a separate and new building. Construction of the $10 million building begins in 1932 and will be completed in 1935. The Court will hold its first session in the new building on Oct. 7, 1935.
Florence Ellinwood Allen is appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, becoming the first woman judge in a federal court. She eventually will become chief judge of the court. Previously, Allen was the first woman justice to serve on Ohio’s Supreme Court, as well as the first woman to serve on any state Supreme Court. She also served as an assistant county prosecutor and a state court judge after earning a law degree from the New York University School of Law in 1913.
After the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the National Industrial Recovery Act, Agricultural Adjustment Act, and other New Deal legislation as unconstitutional, President Franklin D. Roosevelt complains that the Court is still operating in the “horse and buggy” era, out of step with the times. Unable to appoint any justices during his first term, he follows his landslide reelection with a proposal to expand the Court by adding one new justice for every sitting justice over the age of 70. This “court-packing” plan bitterly divides congressional Democrats and is never adopted. Yet, in his next three terms as president, Roosevelt will be able to appoint all the members of the Supreme Court, and the new justices will be more sympathetic to expanded federal regulation of the economy.
Congress establishes a court of appeals as the highest court for the District of Columbia, the equivalent of a state supreme court.
To reduce some of the workload of the U.S. District Courts, Congress established a Board of General Appraisers within the Treasury Department in 1890 to decide disputes involving imports, exports, and tariffs. In 1909, Congress created a Court of Customs Appeals to hear all challenges to the board’s decisions. By 1980, recognizing that the work has become more judicial than administrative, Congress reorganizes these bodies into the U.S. Court of International Trade.