Presidents throughout history have sought to influence law through their judicial appointments. However, the skirmish involving the midnight judges had a much broader significance: it belonged to a fight that had begun shortly after the WAR OF INDEPENDENCE between the leaders of the new nation. The argument pitted the Federalists (led by JOHN ADAMS) against the Republicans (led by THOMAS JEFFERSON) over a fundamental problem: how much power should be given to the federal government and, in particular, the federal judiciary? The answer would influence the course of U.S. law for generations to come.
When Adams lost the 1800 election, the nation was only twenty-four years old. The Constitution, ratified in 1789, was even younger. For more than two decades, the Federalists and the Republicans had argued over their competing visions of strong federal government versus
STATES' RIGHTS. The 1800 election crystallized these opposing philosophies. Adams and the Federalists accused the Republicans of intending to plunder property and undermine civilized society. On the other side, Jefferson and the Republicans attacked the Federalists for trying to subvert the guarantees of the BILL OF RIGHTS. The election tipped the balance of power. With the Republicans capturing the White House and Congress, it appeared that Jefferson's party would at last have the upper hand.
But the Federalists intended to preserve their power. Just before time ran out on the Adams administration, they enacted the Judiciary Act of 1801. This sweeping law struck at a key point of contention: the jurisdiction of the federal courts. The Republicans wanted the federal courts to be constrained, but the new law gave these courts increased jurisdiction over land and BANKRUPTCY cases. The federal courts now had greater authority at the expense of the states. The act added six new federal circuits with sixteen new judges. As a final measure, they also added dozens of new justices of the peace to the District of Columbia. Between December 12 and March 4, President Adams, with the approval of the Senate, busily stacked the courts with his own people. If the Federalists could not control Washington through elected office, they would at least dictate the composition of the judiciary.
The Republicans could not tolerate this bold maneuver. Enraged, Jefferson declared that "the Federalists have retired into the judiciary as a...