The Judiciary Act of 1789
George Washington (1731–1799)
The Judiciary Act of 1789 was one of the first actions of the new Congress, and it established a federal court system. According to the Constitution, the judicial branch shall be comprised of one Supreme Court and such lower courts as Congress may establish from time to time.
However, unlike the legislative provisions, in which the authors clearly stated the powers of Congress, Article III of the Constitution is ambiguous as to what judicial powers should be.
Because the three judicial systems in the British system — Common Pleas (private law), King’s Bench (criminal law), and Chancery (equity) — functioned separately and received their power from the King’s writ, Congress had no precedent to guide it.
Even when American courts followed English precedent during colonial times, the frontier society lacked the means and educated staff to follow British practice. As a result, Congress had a blank canvas to work with. Combining law and equity into a single court system was one of the most innovative measures taken, resulting in a more effective and efficient way of administering justice.
The argument in Congress centered on how much power the Constitution gave the federal government over the states. States’ rights advocates claimed that granting the new courts too much power would give them too much power, while proponents believed that only a strong federal judicial system could address the flaws that had surfaced under the Confederacy.
Looking back, it’s difficult to see how the Constitution’s supremacy, as guaranteed by Article VI, could have been maintained without a powerful federal court system, capable of reviewing and, if necessary, overturning state court rulings. Otherwise, the country would have been left with thirteen separate jurisdictions and no way to bring them all into line with a single national norm. “I have never been able to see how the Constitution itself could have been the supreme law of the land; or that the uniformity of Federal authority throughout the parts to it could have been preserved; or that without the uniformity, anarchy and disunion could have been avoided,” James Madison wrote in 1832 about the federal courts.
The United States’ courts, like the legislative and executive departments, have served as tools of democratic governance, uniting a diverse population.
For more information, see D.F. Henderson’s Courts for a New Nation (1971); Julius Goebel’s Antecedents and Beginnings to 1801 (1971); the first book of the Holmes Devise’s History of the Supreme Court of the United States; and Maeva Marcus’s Origins of the Federal Judiciary (1992).
The Bill of Rights (1791);
The Power of Judicial Review (1803).
The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)