Origins of the Federal Court System

Judiciary Act of 1789 and the Lower Federal Courts

What type of federal court system did Congress create in the Judiciary Act of 1789?

Congress passed the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789, which filled in many of the blanks in Article III of the Constitution. For example, Article III simply stated that there would be “one supreme court” and such “inferior courts” as Congress deemed necessary.

The Judiciary Act created a three-tiered system of federal courts, which still exists into the twenty-first century. The Act created a U.S. Supreme Court (of six justices), federal circuit courts, and federal district courts. There were 13 district courts, consisting of the districts of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Georgia. In each district, there would be a district court and a district judge that would hold four annual sessions.

The Judiciary Act also called for three circuit courts—the Eastern, Middle, and Southern Circuits. The Eastern Circuit consisted of the districts of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York. The Middle Circuit consisted of the districts of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The Southern Circuit consisted of the districts of Georgia and South Carolina. Each circuit court would consist of panels of three judges—a local district court judge and two U.S. Supreme Court justices.


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