Origins of the Federal Court System

Judiciary Act of 1789 and the Lower Federal Courts

What was circuit duty?

The Judiciary Act of 1789 created 13 lower federal courts called district courts. These district courts were divided into three circuits—the Eastern, the Middle, and the Southern. The circuit courts were composed of a district court judge and two justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. “Circuit duty,” or “riding circuit,” meant that U.S. Supreme Court justices had to travel across the country to hear cases across the country. An early U.S. Supreme Court justice, Thomas Johnson of Maryland, resigned after a little more than a year because of the difficulties caused by traveling to different circuit courts. In 1793, Congress passed a law that required circuit courts to consist of only one U.S. Supreme Court justice. Supreme Court justices “rode circuit” until 1891.


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