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United States circuit court

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The United States circuit courts were the original intermediate level courts of the United States federal court system. They were established by the Judiciary Act of 1789. They had trial court jurisdiction over civil suits of diversity jurisdiction and major federal crimes. They also had appellate jurisdiction over the United States district courts. The Judiciary Act of 1891 (26 Stat. 826, also known as the Evarts Act) transferred their appellate jurisdiction to the newly created United States circuit courts of appeals, which are now known as the United States courts of appeals. On January 1, 1912, the effective date of the Judicial Code of 1911, the circuit courts were abolished, with their remaining trial court jurisdiction transferred to the U.S. district courts.

During the 100 years that the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court "rode circuit", many justices complained about the effort required.[1] Riding circuit took a great deal of time (about half of the year) and was both physically demanding and dangerous. However, "members of Congress held firm to the belief that circuit riding benefited the justices and the populace, and they turned a deaf ear to the corps of justices that desired to abolish the practice."[1]

The Judiciary Act of 1869 established a separate circuit court (and allowed the hiring of judges specifically to handle the cases) but the act required that Supreme Court justices had to ride circuit once every two years. However, this came to a final end in 1891 when the Circuit Courts of Appeals Act (Evarts Act) was passed.[1]


Although the federal judicial districts were grouped into circuits, the circuit courts convened separately in each district and were designated by the name of the district (for example, the "U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Massachusetts"), not by the name or number of the circuit. The designation of circuits served only for the purpose of designating the districts in which a particular Supreme Court Justice, and later a circuit judge, would sit on the circuit court. The circuit court districts were usually, but not always, the same as the districts established for the district courts.

Each circuit court was composed initially of two Supreme Court justices and the district judge of the district, although in 1793 Congress provided that a quorum of one justice and one district judge could hold court. After 1802, only one justice was assigned to each circuit, and a quorum could consist of a single justice or judge. This "circuit riding" arrangement meant that the Supreme Court justices spent the majority of the year traveling to each district within their circuit to conduct trials, and spent far less time assembled at the capital to hear appeals. The burden of circuit riding was somewhat alleviated by the appointment of circuit judges under the Circuit Judges Act of 1869, but was not abolished until the creation of the intermediate courts of appeals in 1891.

In 1801, Congress attempted for the first time in its history to relieve the Supreme Court justices of this burden by enacting the Judiciary Act of 1801, commonly known as the Midnight Judges Act, but that proved to be highly controversial as the Act took effect with only 19 days remaining in John Adams's Federalist administration. Before the oppositional Democratic-Republican administration of Thomas Jefferson took power, Adams took advantage of the Act to nominate several new federal judges expected to support the Federalist agenda. Although Jefferson also nominated a few judges, the Act was repealed after only one year because Jefferson feared the judiciary would become too powerful.

The same act also created the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, a "circuit court" for the District of Columbia. This court had the same original jurisdiction and powers as the United States circuit courts but, unlike those courts, it continued to have its own judges even after the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801, and also exercised appellate jurisdiction over justices of the peace and other "local" courts of the District. The District of Columbia was not enumerated among the federal "circuits" at the time. This court was abolished in 1863.

Since each circuit court was initially staffed by sharing judges between the U.S. Supreme Court and each federal district court, the district court clerk usually acted as the circuit court clerk. This arrangement persisted for many years in most federal judicial districts, even after Congress authorized the appointment of circuit judges in 1869 and allowed such judges to appoint a clerk without the concurrence of the district court judge.[2]


Although any district court judge could be authorized to act as a circuit judge, only fifty judges solely designated as circuit court judges were ever appointed. These can be broadly categorized into four groups:

  1. Judges appointed pursuant to the Midnight Judges Act on or after February 20, 1801, and thereafter removed from office with the repeal of that Act on July 1, 1802.
  2. Judges appointed to the D.C. Circuit, abolished on March 3, 1863
  3. Judges appointed after 1869 pursuant to the Circuit Judges Act of 1869; those in office on June 16, 1891 were transferred to the newly created United States courts of appeals by operation of law, that is, without action on the part of the President.
  4. One judge appointed to the California circuit, established in 1855 and abolished on March 3, 1863.

Three circuit court judges, Samuel M. Blatchford, David Josiah Brewer, and William Burnham Woods, were later appointed to the Supreme Court.

Circuit court judges appointed pursuant to the Midnight Judges Act

Judge[3] Circuit Began service Ended service Appointed by
Richard Bassett Third February 20, 1801 July 1, 1802 John Adams
Thomas Bee Fifth Declined John Adams
(as chief judge)[4]
Egbert Benson Second February 20, 1801 July 1, 1802 John Adams
(as chief judge)[5]
Benjamin Bourne First February 20, 1801 July 1, 1802 John Adams
Joseph Clay Fifth Declined John Adams
William Griffith Third February 20, 1801 July 1, 1802 John Adams
Dominic Hall Fifth July 1, 1801
July 1, 1802 Thomas Jefferson
Edward Harris Fifth May 3, 1802 July 1, 1802 Thomas Jefferson
Samuel Hitchcock Second February 20, 1801 July 1, 1802 John Adams
Jared Ingersoll Third Declined John Adams
(as chief judge)[5]
Philip Key Fourth February 20, 1801 July 1, 1802 John Adams
(as chief judge)[6]
Charles Lee Fourth Declined John Adams
(as chief judge)[5]
John Lowell First February 20, 1801 May 6, 1802 John Adams
(as chief judge)[5]
Charles Magill Fourth March 3, 1801 July 1, 1802 John Adams
William McClung Sixth February 20, 1801 July 1, 1802 John Adams
Henry Potter Fifth May 9, 1801
April 7, 1802 Thomas Jefferson
John Sitgreaves Fifth Declined John Adams
Jeremiah Smith First February 20, 1801 July 1, 1802 John Adams
George Taylor Fourth February 20, 1801 July 1, 1802 John Adams
William Tilghman Third March 3, 1801 July 1, 1802 John Adams
(as chief judge)[7]
Oliver Wolcott Second February 20, 1801 July 1, 1802 John Adams

Judges of the D.C. Circuit

Judge Circuit Began service Ended service Appointed by
William Cranch D.C. February 28, 1801 February 24, 1806 John Adams
February 24, 1806 September 1, 1855 Thomas Jefferson
(as chief judge)[note 1]
Allen Duckett D.C. March 17, 1806 July 19, 1809 Thomas Jefferson
James Dunlop D.C. October 3, 1845
November 27, 1855 James Polk
November 27, 1855
March 3, 1863 Franklin Pierce
(as chief judge)[note 1]
Nicholas Fitzhugh D.C. November 25, 1803 December 31, 1814 Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Johnson D.C. Declined John Adams
(as chief judge)[8]
William Kilty D.C. March 23, 1801
January 27, 1806 Thomas Jefferson
(as chief judge)
James Marshall D.C. March 3, 1801 November 16, 1803 John Adams
William Merrick D.C. December 14, 1855 March 3, 1863 Franklin Pierce
James Morsell D.C. January 11, 1815 March 3, 1863 James Madison
Buckner Thruston D.C. December 14, 1809 August 30, 1845 James Madison

Circuit court judges appointed pursuant to the 1869 Act

Judge Circuit Began service Ended service Appointed by
Marcus W. Acheson Third February 3, 1891 June 16, 1891[note 2] Benjamin Harrison
John Baxter Sixth December 13, 1877 April 2, 1886 Rutherford Hayes
Samuel Blatchford Second March 4, 1878 March 22, 1882 Rutherford Hayes
Hugh Bond Fourth July 13, 1870 June 16, 1891[note 2] Ulysses Grant
David Brewer Eighth March 31, 1884 December 18, 1889 Chester Arthur
Henry Caldwell Eighth March 4, 1890 June 16, 1891[note 2] Benjamin Harrison
LeBaron Colt First July 5, 1884 June 16, 1891[note 2] Chester Arthur
John Dillon Eighth December 22, 1869 September 1, 1879 Ulysses Grant
Thomas Drummond Seventh December 22, 1869 July 18, 1884 Ulysses Grant
Halmer Emmons Sixth January 17, 1870 May 14, 1877 Ulysses Grant
Walter Gresham Seventh October 28, 1884
June 16, 1891[note 2] Chester Arthur
Howell Jackson Sixth April 12, 1886 June 16, 1891[note 2] Grover Cleveland
Alexander Johnson Second October 25, 1875
January 26, 1878 Ulysses Grant
Emile Lacombe Second May 26, 1887
June 16, 1891[note 2] Grover Cleveland
John Lowell First December 18, 1878 May 1, 1884 Rutherford Hayes
George McCrary Eighth December 9, 1879 March 18, 1884 Rutherford Hayes
William McKennan Third December 22, 1869 January 3, 1891 Ulysses Grant
Don Pardee Fifth May 13, 1881 June 16, 1891[note 2] James Garfield
Lorenzo Sawyer Ninth January 10, 1870 June 16, 1891[note 2] Ulysses Grant
George Shepley First December 22, 1869 July 20, 1878 Ulysses Grant
William Wallace Second April 16, 1882 June 16, 1891[note 2] Chester Arthur
Lewis Woodruff Second December 22, 1869 September 10, 1875 Ulysses Grant
William Woods Fifth December 22, 1869 December 23, 1880 Ulysses Grant

Circuit court judge of California

Judge Circuit Began service Ended service Appointed by
Matthew McAllister California March 3, 1855 January 12, 1863 Franklin Pierce

See also


  1. ^ a b Because of the unique structure of the United States Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, the elevation of a sitting judge of the Court to chief judge of the Court is considered a separate appointment.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Transferred to the corresponding Court of Appeals by operation of law.


  1. ^ a b c Glick, Joshua (April 2003). "Comment: On the Road: The Supreme Court and the History of Circuit Riding". Cardozo Law Review.
  2. ^ Messinger, I. Scott (2002). Order in the Courts: A History of the Federal Court Clerk's Office. Washington, D.C.: Federal Judicial Center. p. 18.
  3. ^ After Midnight: The Circuit Judges and the Repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801
  4. ^ From John Adams to United States Senate, 21 February 1801
  5. ^ a b c d From John Adams to United States Senate, 18 February 1801
  6. ^ From John Adams to United States Senate, 25 February 1801
  7. ^ From John Adams to United States Senate, 26 February 1801
  8. ^ From John Adams to United States Senate, 28 February 1801

External links

This page was last edited on 14 May 2021, at 21:38
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