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Judiciary Act of 1802

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Title: Judiciary Act of 1802  
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Subject: 7th United States Congress, Judiciary Act, Judiciary Act of 1789, History of the Supreme Court of the United States, United States District Court for the District of Potomac
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Judiciary Act of 1802

The federal court system. It restored some elements of the Judiciary Act of 1801, which had been adopted by the Federalist majority in the previous Congress, but was repealed by the Democratic-Republican majority earlier in 1802.

The Act restructured the circuit courts into six circuits, and assigned one Supreme Court justice to each circuit. Unlike the 1801 Act, no new circuit judgeships were created, so the justices were faced with having to return to the practice of "riding circuit" to hold court in each district within their circuit, along with the local district judge, during the majority of the year. No circuit courts were created for the judicial districts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Maine, or the territories, although the 1801 Act would have done so.

Since the circuit courts were now to consist of only two judges, the Act permitted them to certify to the Supreme Court any question of law on which the two could not agree. Also, the district judge was not permitted to hear appeals of his own decisions, so appeals from the district courts were decided by the circuit justice alone. But the most important part of the Act was the provision that a quorum of only one judge was needed to convene a circuit court. As a result, Supreme Court justices could often rely on district court judges to convene circuit courts. With circuit riding largely optional, Supreme Court justices were no longer saddled with what they had previously felt was a tremendous burden. The Act's flexibility proved crucial to the demise of circuit riding, which essentially disappeared by 1840.

The Act also created additional district courts by dividing the District of North Carolina into the districts of Albemarle, Cape Fear, and Pamptico, and by dividing the District of Tennessee into the Eastern and Western Districts of Tennessee. No new judgeships were created for these courts; however, the district judges in North Carolina and Tennessee had to hold court in each district within their state, and the North Carolina judge also had to sit on the circuit court (which, however, continued to sit for the state as a whole, not in the separate district court districts).

The Act established a United States District Court for the District of Columbia, although this court is not the direct predecessor of today's court bearing the same name.

See also


  • Bruce Ackerman, The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy, Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2005.
  • Artemus Ward, Deciding to Leave: The Politics of Retirement from the United States Supreme Court, New York: SUNY Press, 2003.

Further reading

  • James M. O'Fallon, The Case of Benjamin More: A Lost Episode in the Struggle over Repeal of the 1801 Judiciary Act, 11 Law & Hist. Rev. 43 (1993).
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