ArtIII.S1.8.4 Establishment of Inferior Federal Courts

Article III, Section 1:

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 Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.

By vesting judicial power in “such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish,” the Framers allowed Congress to decide whether to establish lower federal courts.1 Because Congress has the authority to decide whether the lower federal courts should exist, the legislature is also understood to enjoy broad power to structure the lower courts, make procedural rules for them, and regulate their jurisdiction.2

From the beginning, Congress has answered the question of whether there should be inferior federal courts in the affirmative. The first Congress exercised its discretion to create lower federal courts in the Judiciary Act of 1789, the first legislation related to the Federal Judiciary.3 The 1789 Act created thirteen judicial districts, each of which had one district judge.4 Single judge, trial-level district courts were to hold four sessions per year in each district. The Act further divided the country into three judicial circuits. It established “circuit courts,” which were three-judge panels comprised of one district judge and two Supreme Court Justices. One noteworthy feature of the new Judiciary was that Supreme Court Justices were required to “ride circuit” and travel to the districts within their assigned circuits to hear cases—a burdensome requirement, given the transportation technology of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly for Justices who were old or unhealthy or were assigned to outlying circuits.5

As the Nation grew, the Federal Judiciary also expanded, with each new state receiving a judicial district.6 Congress reorganized the Federal Judiciary into six judicial circuits in 1801,7 and thereafter periodically added new circuits to encompass new states.8 In 1869, Congress enacted legislation creating circuit court judgeships.9 The new circuit court judges presided over cases within their circuits, limiting the need for Supreme Court Justices to ride circuit. Then, in 1891, Congress created intermediate appellate courts, known as the United States Courts of Appeals, abolishing the circuit courts and removing any requirement the Supreme Court Justices ride circuit.10 Since then, the federal judicial system has consisted of trial-level district courts with original jurisdiction over most federal cases, intermediate appellate courts, and the Supreme Court.

U.S. Const. art. III, § 1; see also U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 9 (authorizing Congress, in its discretion, to “constitute Tribunals inferior to the [S]upreme Court.” ); 1 The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, at 125 (Max Farrand ed., 1911) (observation of James Wilson and James Madison “that there was a distinction between establishing such [inferior] tribunals absolutely, and giving a discretion to the Legislature to establish or not establish them” ). back
See, e.g., ArtIII.S1.4.2 Inherent Powers Over Judicial Procedure; ArtIII.S2.C2.6 Exceptions Clause and Congressional Control over Appellate Jurisdiction. back
1 Stat. 73. back
The thirteen districts included one for each state that had ratified the Constitution at the time the Judiciary Act of 1789 was enacted, plus districts for Maine and Kentucky, which were then parts of Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively. Id. back
See, e.g., Joshua Glick, Comment, On the Road: The Supreme Court and the History of Circuit Riding, 24 Cardozo L. Rev. 1753 (2003). back
Some states were eventually divided into multiple judicial districts, and some districts were given more than one district judge. See, e.g., Judiciary Act of 1801, ch. 4, 2 Stat. 89, 89; Circuit Judges Act of 1869, ch. 71, 16 Stat. 44. back
Judiciary Act of 1801, ch. 4, § 3, 2 Stat. 89. The Judiciary Act of 1801 was repealed in 1802, Act of Mar. 8, 1802, ch. 8, § 1, 2 Stat. 132, and soon thereafter Congress reorganized the judiciary into six different circuits, Act of Apr. 29, 1802, ch. 31, §§ 4, 5, 2 Stat. 156, 157–58. back
See, e.g., Act of Feb. 24, 1807, ch. 16, § 5, 2 Stat. 420; Act of Mar. 3, 1837, ch. 34, § 1, 5 Stat. 176. back
Circuit Judges Act of 1869, ch. 22, 16 Stat. 44. back
Act of March 3, 1891, 26 Stat. 826. back