The Federal Judiciary

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The Massachusetts General Court drafts the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the first bill of rights in American history. It includes the promise of a speedy trial and equal justice, protection against double jeopardy, and a prohibition against torture, among other rights.

1789Congress Passes Judiciary Act Of 1789

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.

1789Congress Passes The Judiciary Act

Congress responds to its constitutional authority to establish the lower federal courts by passing the Judiciary Act. Senator Oliver Ellsworth, who was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, takes the lead in drafting the legislation that provides for six justices on the Supreme Court, thirteen district courts in the major cities, and three circuit courts to cover other areas. Initially, the Supreme Court serves as the only court of appeals.

1790Supreme Court Convenes For First Time In New York

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.

1791Supreme Court Convenes In Philadelphia

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.

1795Senate Rejects Nomination Of Rutledge As Chief Justice

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.

1795The Senate Rejects John Rutledge As Chief Justice

President George Washington nominates John Rutledge to be chief justice of the United States. Rutledge, who previously served as an associate justice on the Supreme Court, has resigned to become chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court. Rutledge, however, has just given a speech denouncing the Jay Treaty, which the Senate has just approved. The outraged senators then vote 14 to 10 against his nomination, making him the first chief justice to be rejected.

1800Supreme Court Moves To Washington, D.C.

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.

1803The Supreme Court Asserts The Right Of Judicial Review

Outgoing President John Adams signs the commission for William Marbury to become a justice of the peace in Washington, D.C., but the incoming Secretary of State James Madison refuses to deliver the commission. Marbury files a writ directly with the Supreme Court, as the law permits, demanding his commission. Chief Justice John Marshall in his opinion in Marbury v. Madison declares the law that permitted Marbury to appeal to the Supreme Court to be unconstitutional. This marks the first instance in which the Supreme Court claims the right of judicial review over acts of Congress.

1803‘Marbury v. Madison’ Asserts Judicial Review

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.

1804The House Impeaches A Supreme Court Justice

In 1804, the Jeffersonian Republicans in the House of Representatives vote to impeach Justice Samuel Chase, a Federalist who has served on the Supreme Court since 1796. He is accused of behaving in an “arbitrary, oppressive, and unjust” manner on the bench. The Senate conducts a trial in 1805, in which Justice Chase defends himself by declaring that he is being prosecuted for his political convictions rather than having committed any “high crimes or misdemeanors,” as the Constitution specifies. Six Republicans join with nine Federalist senators to acquit Chase on all counts. He remains on the Supreme Court until he dies in 1811.

1855Congress Creates A Court of Claims

To relieve itself of petitions for financial claims, Congress in 1855 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 abolishes the Court of Claims and divides its jurisdiction between the new U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

1855Congress Creates Court of Claims

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.

1863Size Of Supreme Court Fluctuates

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.

1863The Size Of The Supreme Court Fluctuates

In 1863 the new Republican majorities in Congress expand the Supreme Court to ten, allowing President Abraham Lincoln to make an appointment to the Court. After Lincoln dies, however, Congress strongly disagrees with his successor, Andrew Johnson, over Reconstruction policies. To prevent Johnson from appointing any justices, Congress reduces the number of justices to eight in 1867. After Johnson’s term ends in 1869, Congress returns the Supreme Court to nine justices.

1890Congress Creates The U.S. Court Of International Trade

To reduce some of the workload of the U.S. district courts, Congress establishes a Board of General Appraisers in 1890 to decide disputes involving imports, exports, and tariffs. The board operates within the Treasury Department. In 1909, Congress creates a Court of Customs Appeals to hear all challenges to the board’s decisions. By 1980, in recognition that the work has become more judicial than administrative, Congress reorganizes these bodies into the U.S. Court of International Trade.

1891Congress Creates The U.S. Courts of Appeals

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 twenty additional years. In 1911, the circuit courts are abolished and their jurisdictions are transferred to the district courts. In the early twenty-first century, there are ninety-four U.S. judicial districts organized into twelve regional circuits, each one having a U.S. Court of Appeals.

1891Congress Creates U.S. Courts of Appeals

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.

1922Uniformity Of Federal Court Procedures Is Sought

The growth of the federal courts in the twentieth century forces Congress to develop a means to improve their administration and operations. In 1922, Congress establishes the Conference of Senior Circuit Judges, which in 1948 is renamed the Judicial Conference of the United States to “serve as the principal policy making body concerned with the administration of the United States Courts.” The Judicial Conference keeps track of the business of the federal courts, and makes suggestions for promoting uniformity of procedures and conduct of court business.

1922Uniformity Sought In Federal Court Procedures

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.

1932Construction Of Supreme Court Building Begins

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.

1937FDR Tries To Pack The Supreme Court

After the 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 seventy. This “Court packing” plan bitterly divides congressional Democrats and is never adopted. Yet, in his next three terms as President, Roosevelt is able to appoint all the members of Supreme Court, and the new justices are more sympathetic to expanded federal regulation of the economy.

1937Roosevelt Tries To ‘Pack’ the Supreme Court

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.

1970The District of Columbia Gets A Court Of Appeals

The District of Columbia is not a state but instead is operated by Congress as the seat of government. In 1970, Congress establishes a court of appeals as the highest court for the District of Columbia, the equivalent of a state supreme court.

1970District Of Columbia Gets Court of Appeals

Congress establishes a court of appeals as the highest court for the District of Columbia, the equivalent of a state supreme court.

1980Congress Creates U.S. Court Of International Trade

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.

1986Three Federal Judges Are Impeached And Removed From The Bench

Although rarely used, impeachment remains the only way that Congress can consider removing a federal judge with a lifetime appointment. Between 1986 and 1989, the House of Representatives impeaches three federal judges on charges ranging from income tax evasion to accepting a bribe. The Senate designates a committee to hear the evidence and then votes to remove judges Harry Claiborne, Alcee Hastings, and Walter Nixon.