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Anniversary of the Federal Court System

September 24 is the anniversary of the establishment of the federal court system as separate and apart from the state court system. It was a groundbreaking innovation in 1789 that has stood the test of time. 

Facts About the Judiciary Act of 1789

In the Constitution, Article III deals with the Judicial Branch and focuses only on the Supreme Court. Article III did not cover how the court system would be developed, so the First Congress created the Judiciary Act of 1789 to establish the federal Judiciary.

  • The Judiciary Act of 1789 established the federal court system separate from individual state courts.
  • It was one of the first acts of the First Congress.
  • President George Washington signed it into law on September 24, 1789.

In the Judiciary Act of 1789, the First Congress decided that:

  • Congress could regulate the jurisdiction of all federal courts.
  • The federal district courts and circuit courts would have specific, limited jurisdiction.
  • The Supreme Court would have the original jurisdiction provided for in the Constitution.
  • The Supreme Court would handle appeals from the federal circuit courts and appeals from certain cases heard in the state courts.

Supreme Court Justices and Federal Judges

Supreme Court justices and federal judges who hear cases in these courts, take an oath that they will perform all of their judicial duties under the Constitution and the laws of the United States. This oath is very meaningful to judges, many of whom have taken great risks to uphold the rule of law.

Changes to the Act

A major change was made only after the expansion of the country across the continent and the unrest of the Civil War. In 1891, Congress created a separate tier of appellate circuit courts which eliminated the necessity of Supreme Court justices traveling to hear cases in different circuits, which was called circuit riding. Since 1891, the structure of the federal courts has remained relatively unchanged.

The Federal Court System Today

The modern-day Supreme Court is composed of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight associate justices. Congress also has created 13 courts of appeals and 94 district courts.

DISCLAIMER: These resources are created by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for educational purposes only. They may not reflect the current state of the law, and are not intended to provide legal advice, guidance on litigation, or commentary on any pending case or legislation.