Bill passed by Congress establishing a three-tier system of federal courts.
During the Constitutional Convention, most of the debate revolved around the executive and legislative branches. There was near complete agreement on the need for a federal judiciary, although there was considerable disagreement about what exactly the judiciary would do. That is, the supporters of both the Virginia and New Jersey plans during the Constitutional Convention favored the creation of a federal judiciary something that did not exist under the previous governing document, the Articles of Confederation. The proposals for a federal judiciary were quite similar. Both supported the creation of a supreme court as well as the formation of inferior tribunals. The inferior courts would be trial courts, and the highest court would primarily be a court of appeals but would also hear some cases in the first instance. When the Committee on Detail, a small group formed by the men convened in Philadelphia, reported a draft to the full assembly on August 8, 1787, the section in the proposed Constitution regarding the judiciary was nearly identical to final product of the Convention, which was signed on September 17, 1787.
The new Constitution treated the judicial branch of government in Article III, which contains less detail than Articles I and II, which, respectively, lay out the structures and powers of Congress and the president. Article III, section 1, states that “the judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” The Framers of the Constitution did not believe it was prudent or even possible to determine the specifics of the structure of the federal judiciary. They left the exact structure to be determined by the legislative branch.
Moreover, Article III, section 2, states that “The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases…arising under this Constitution, [and] the laws of the United States” as well as matters specifically stated that were best suited for the federal judiciary.
Thus the Framers left it to Congress to determine the specifics, and Congress did so with the Judiciary Act of 1789. The Judiciary Act was the first bill introduced in the Senate and consumed much of the Senate’s time during the summer of 1789. It had three principal authors: Oliver Ellsworth
The Judiciary Act, which was officially titled, “An Act to Establish the Federal Courts of the United States,” was signed by President Washington on September 24, 1789. The most significant aspects of the act were its establishment of a three-tier system of courts, establishing district courts along state boundaries and legislating the jurisdictions, both original and appellate, of the various courts.
The highest tier of the newly formed judicial system was the Supreme Court
The lowest tier of the federal judiciary would be the district courts
The other tier created by the act was the circuit courts of appeals
After the establishment of the courts, the most significant aspect of the Judiciary Act is the assignation of original and appellate jurisdiction for the various courts. In section 13, the act restated the original jurisdiction for the Supreme Court as outlined in Article III of the Constitution. The act also dictated what kind of appellate jurisdiction the Court would have. Section 13 further stated that the Court could issue writs of mandamus “in cases warranted by the principle and usages of law, to any courts appointed, or persons holding office under the authority of the United States.” Such a writ would in effect force a higher-level official to act in a particular manner.
Regarding the jurisdiction of the Court, section 25 of the act indicated that the Court could hear appeals from the highest court in each state on matters of law alone. This section truly established the Court as the highest judicial authority in the new United States.
The most famous of the Court cases involving the Judiciary Act of 1789 was Marbury v. Madison
Another significant case involving the Judiciary Act of 1789 is Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee
In Cohens v. Virginia
The Judiciary Act of 1789 is significant because it established the federal judiciary, and, although portions of the act have been amended, many of the precedents established have continued to this day.
As good a starting point as any are two comprehensive but concise histories of the Supreme Court: Robert Langran’s The Supreme Court: A Concise History (New York: P. Lang, 2004) and Westel Woodbury Willoughby’s The Supreme Court of the United States: Its History and Influence in Our Constitutional System (Union, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange, 2001). From there, readers may wish to probe more deeply into the Court’s history in The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), which contains the complete text of the Judiciary Act of 1789. Any serious investigation of this topic should consult the only recent book devoted to the act, Wilfred Ritz’s Rewriting the History of the Judiciary Act of 1789: Exposing Myths, Challenging Premises, and Using New Evidence (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990). Robert McCloskey’s The American Supreme Court, revised by Sanford Levinson (4th ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), devotes a chapter to the early years of the Court. Congressional Quarterly’s Guide to the United States Supreme Court, edited by David G. Savage (4th ed., Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 2004) includes essays on the formation of the federal judiciary.
Circuit courts of appeals
Cohens v. Virginia
Judicial Improvements and Access to Justice Act
Judiciary Acts of 1801-1925
Lower federal courts
Marbury v. Madison
Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee