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
of Congress, 1st Congress, 1st Session, reports
that the Senate
passed the Judiciary Act by a vote of 14 to 6 on July
17, 1789. The House of Representatives debated this bill
12, and September
14, before passing the Judiciary Act without a roll
call vote on September
The appendix of the Annals of Congress
also contains a copy of the Judiciary
Act of 1789.
Senator William Maclay from Pennsylvania kept a diary
of his experiences in the First Congress. Because Senate
sessions were closed to the public until 1795, Maclay's
Journal is one of the few accounts of Senate floor
activity in the early Congresses. Although an opponent
of the bill, Maclay wrote extensively on the Judiciary
Act. On July 17, 1789, the day the bill was passed
by the Senate, Maclay
wrote, "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."
this collection using the word "judiciary"
in the First Congress (1789-90) to find additional Congressional
documents related to this act.
Washington Papers at the Library of Congress
On September 28, 1789, George
Washington wrote Edmund Randolph a letter concerning
his nomination as attorney general, a position created
by the Judiciary Act of 1789. This collection also contains
letter Washington used in 1789 when appointing judges
to the Supreme Court.
James Madison Papers
Ten days before the Judiciary Act was signed into law,
Madison discussed this bill in a letter to Edward
Pendleton, in which he wrote, "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
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,
Marcus, Maeva, ed. Origins of the
Federal Judiciary: Essays on the Judiciary Act of 1789.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. [Catalog
Surrency, Erwin C. History of the
Federal Courts. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana Publications,
Wheeler, Russell R., and Cynthia Harrison. Creating
the Federal Judicial System. 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: Federal
Judicial Center, 2005. [Catalog