Judiciary Act of 1789
Judiciary Act of 1789, officially titled "An Act
to Establish the Judicial Courts of the United States,"
was signed into law by President George Washington on September
24, 1789. Article III of the Constitution established a Supreme
Court, but left to Congress the authority to create lower
federal courts as needed. Principally authored by Senator
Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, the Judiciary Act of 1789
established the structure and jurisdiction of the federal
court system and created the position of attorney general.
Although amended throughout the years by Congress, the basic
outline of the federal court system established by the First
Congress remains largely intact today.
Library of Congress Web Site | External
Web Sites | Selected Bibliography
Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation
This collection contains congressional publications from 1774 to 1875, including debates, bills, laws, and journals.
of Congress, 1st Congress, 1st Session, contains the following references to the Judiciary Act of 1789:
this collection using the word "judiciary"
in the First Congress (1789-91) to find additional Congressional
documents related to this act, including all references in the Senate Journal.
References in the Senate Journal include:
- April 7, 1789 - Ordered, That Mr. Ellsworth, Mr. Paterson, Mr. Maclay, Mr. Strong, Mr. Lee, Mr. Bassett, Mr. Few, and Mr. Wingate, be a committee, to bring in a bill for organizing the Judiciary of the United States.
- June 12, 1789 - Mr. Lee, in behalf of the committee thereto appointed, reported "a bill to establish the judicial courts of the United States;" which was read the first time, and Monday, the 22d of June, was assigned for the second reading.
- July 17, 1789 - The Senate passed the bill "to establish the Judicial Courts of the United States" by a vote of 14 to 6.
Journal is one of the few accounts of Senate floor
activity in the early Congresses. Senate
sessions were closed to the public until 1795. Senator William Maclay from Pennsylvania kept a diary
of his experiences in the First Congress. Although an opponent
of the bill, Maclay wrote extensively on the Judiciary
References in Maclay's
- June 22, 1789 - "Attended the Senate. The bill for settling the new judiciary was taken up. Much discourse about the mode of doing business."
- July 17, 1789, "I opposed this bill from the beginning.
It certainly is a vile law system, calculated for expense
and with a design to draw by degrees all law business
into the Federal courts."
- June 29, 1789, "Sent my letters to the post-office; and now for the judiciary. I made a remark where Elsworth in his diction had varied from the Constitution. This vile bill is a child of his, and he defends it with the care of a parent, even with wrath and anger."
- July 2, 1789, "The bill for the judiciary was taken up. I really dislike the whole of this bill, but I endeavored to mend it in several places and make it as perfect as possible, if it is to be the law of the land."
- July 7, 1789, "The judiciary was taken up for a third reading. I can scarcely account for my dislike for this bill, but I really fear it will be the gunpowder-plot of the Constitution."
- July 17, 1789, "I opposed this bill from the beginning. It certainly is a vile law system, calculated for expense and with a design to draw by degrees all law business into the Federal courts."
The complete George Washington Papers collection from the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress consists of approximately 65,000 documents.
- George Washington to Edmund Randolph, September 28, 1789, "I mean not to flatter when I say, that considerations like these have ruled in the nomination of the Attorney-General of the United States, and, that my private wishes would be highly gratified by your acceptance of the Office. I regarded the office as requiring those talents to conduct its important duties, and that disposition to sacrifice to the public good, which I believe you to possess and entertain; in both instances, I doubt not, the event will justify the conclusion; The appointment I hope, will be accepted, and its functions, I am assured, will be well performed."
- George Washington to United States Supreme Court, September 30, 1789 - A form letter used by Washington in 1789 when appointing judges
to the Supreme Court.
James Madison Papers
James Madison (1751-1836) is one of 23 presidents whose papers are held in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. The Madison Papers consist of approximately 12,000 items.
- James Madison to Edward Pendleton, September 14, 1789, "The Judiciary is now
under consideration. I view it as you do, as defective
both in its general structure, and many of its particular
regulations. The attachment of the Eastern members, the
difficulty of substituting another plan, with the consent
of those who agree in disliking the bill, the defect of
time &c, will however prevent any radical alterations.
The most I hope is that some offensive violations of Southern
jurisprudence may be corrected, and that the system may
speedily undergo a reconsideration under the auspices
of the Judges who alone will be able perhaps to set it
to rights." [Transcription]
The Guide to Law Online, prepared by the Law Library of
Congress Public Services Division, is an annotated guide
to sources of information on government and law available
online. Provides a compilation of Web sites for the United
States Judiciary, including links to the Supreme
Court and other Federal courts.
Minute Essays, Senator Ellsworth's Judiciary Act, United
the Federal Judiciary, Federal Judicial Center
Documents, Federal Judiciary Act (1789), National Archives
and Records Administration
Crowe, Justin. Building the Judiciary: Law, Courts, and the Politics of Institutional Development. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. [Catalog
Henderson, Dwight F. Courts for a
New Nation. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press,
Wythe Holt, “To Establish Justice”: Politics, the Judiciary Act of 1789, and the Invention of the Federal Courts, 1989 Duke Law Journal 1421-1531 (1989) [Full Text]
Marcus, Maeva, ed. Origins of the
Federal Judiciary: Essays on the Judiciary Act of 1789.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. [Catalog
Ragsdale, Bruce A. ed. Debates on the Federal Judiciary: A Documentary History. 2 vols. Washington, D.C.: Federal Judicial Center, Federal Judicial History Office, 2013. [Catalog Record] [Full Text]
Surrency, Erwin C. History of the
Federal Courts. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana Publications,
Warren, Charles. “New Light on the History of the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789.” Harvard Law Review 37 (November 1923): 49–132.
Wheeler, Russell R., and Cynthia Harrison. Creating
the Federal Judicial System. 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: Federal
Judicial Center, 2005. [Catalog
Record] [Full Text]