Judiciary Act of 1789

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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The Judiciary Act of 1789 established the lower federal courts. Under Article III, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution, "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." In the Judiciary Act, the first Congress created federal trial courts and federal appeals courts to comply with this provision.

The first Congress engaged in considerable debate over the Judiciary Act. This was not surprising: the Constitutional Convention, which had ended a year and a half earlier, had revealed a deep division between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Federalists promoted federal powers to protect against local bias and ensure federal supremacy. Anti-Federalists opposed a strong federal government and preferred to leave as much power as possible to the states. Although the debate over the Judiciary Act was not conducted entirely by Federalists and Anti-Federalists, these groups represented the opposing viewpoints.

Many concessions were made to Anti-Federalists in the Constitution. However, the ratification of the Constitution was a victory for Federalists because it created the potential for considerable federal powers. The bill for the Judiciary Act?the first bill to be considered in the first Congress?provided another opportunity for Anti-Federalists to present their arguments against strong federal powers.

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On April 7, 1789, the Senate ordered itself to create a committee to draft a bill organizing a federal judiciary. By the end of May, a committee led by OLIVER ELLSWORTH, of Connecticut, WILLIAM PATERSON, of New Jersey, and Caleb Strong, of Massachusetts, had devised a detailed, complex proposal. The committee envisioned a small, unintrusive federal judiciary with exacting jurisdictional requirements. This meant that a case would have to have certain characteristics before it could be heard by a federal court. Remembering criticisms made by the Anti-Federalists at the Constitutional Convention, the committee was careful to avoid giving the federal courts too much authority.

Despite the restrictions on jurisdiction, Anti-Federalists opposed the bill on the grounds that a federal judiciary in any form would deprive states of the right to exercise their own judicial powers. They argued that state courts were more than capable of deciding federal issues. Furthermore, the provision in Article III, Section 1, of the Constitution did not require Congress to create lower federal courts: it merely suggested that Congress do so.

The Anti-Federalists, led by Richard...

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