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Judiciary Act of 1789

Oliver Ellsworth, 1745-1807
Oliver Ellsworth, 1745-1807.
1 print: etching [no date recorded]
Prints & Photographs Division.
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The 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

Digital Collections

A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation

The Annals 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 on August 24, August 29, August 31, September 1, September 9, September 12, and September 14, before passing the Judiciary Act without a roll call vote on September 17, 1789.

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."

Search this collection using the word "judiciary" in the First Congress (1789-90) to find additional Congressional documents related to this act.

George 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 a form letter Washington used in 1789 when appointing judges to the Supreme Court.

The James Madison Papers

Ten days before the Judiciary Act was signed into law, James 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 to rights." [Transcription] External Link

Guide to Law Online

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.

Link disclaimerExternal Web Sites

Historical Minute Essays, Senator Ellsworth's Judiciary Act, United States Senate

History of the Federal Judiciary, Federal Judicial Center

Our Documents, Federal Judiciary Act (1789), National Archives and Records Administration

Selected Bibliography

Crowe, Justin. Building the Judiciary: Law, Courts, and the Politics of Institutional Development. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. [Catalog Record]

Henderson, Dwight F. Courts for a New Nation. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1971. [Catalog Record]

Marcus, Maeva, ed. Origins of the Federal Judiciary: Essays on the Judiciary Act of 1789. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. [Catalog Record]

Surrency, Erwin C. History of the Federal Courts. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana Publications, 2002. [Catalog Record]

Wheeler, Russell R., and Cynthia Harrison. Creating the Federal Judicial System. 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: Federal Judicial Center, 2005. [Catalog Record]

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  March 10, 2015
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