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Judiciary Act of 1789

Oliver Ellsworth, 1745-1807
Oliver Ellsworth, 1745-1807.
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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

This collection contains congressional publications from 1774 to 1875, including debates, bills, laws, and journals.

The Annals of Congress, 1st Congress, 1st Session, contains the following references to the Judiciary Act of 1789:

Search 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.

Maclay's 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 Act.

References in Maclay's Journal include:

  • 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."

George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress

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.

The 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] 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]

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] External Link

Merriam, John M. "The Legislative History of the Ordinance of 1787." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 5 (April 25, 1888): 303–342.

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]

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] External Link

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