Circuit Courts

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The judiciary act of 1789 fashioned a decentralized circuit court system. The boundaries of the three circuits coincided with the boundaries of the states they encompassed, a practice that opened them to state and sectional political influences and legal practices. The act assigned two Supreme Court Justices to each circuit to hold court along with a district judge in the state where the circuit court met. (After 1794, a single Justice and a district judge were a quorum.) The circuit-riding provision brought federal authority and national political views to the new and distant states, but also compelled the Justices to imbibe local political sentiments and legal practices.

For a century questions about the administrative efficiency, constitutional roles, and political responsibilities of these courts provoked heated debate. In the judiciary act of 1801, Federalists sought to replace the Justices with an independent six-person circuit court judiciary, but one year later the new Jeffersonian Republican majority in Congress eliminated the circuit judgeships and restored the Justices to circuit duties, although they left the number of circuits at six. (See judiciary acts of 1802.) Subsequent territorial expansion prompted the addition of new circuits and new Justices until both reached nine in the Judiciary Act of 1837. Slave state interests opposed further expansion because they feared the loss of their five-to-four majority on the high court. Congress in 1855 did create a special circuit court and judgeship for the Northern District of California to expedite land litigation.

Significant structural and jurisdictional changes accompanied the civil war and reconstruction. The Judiciary Act of 1869 established a separate circuit court judiciary and assigned one judge to each of the nine new circuits that stretched from coast to coast. Justices retained circuit-riding duties although the 1869 act and subsequent legislation required less frequent attendance.

Historically, these courts had exercised original and appellate jurisdiction in cases involving the criminal law of the United States, in other areas where particular statutes granted jurisdiction, and in cases resting on diversity of citizenship. The Judiciary Act of 1869 strengthened the appellate responsibilities of the circuit courts by denying litigants access to the Supreme Court unless the amount in controversy exceeded $5,000. The Jurisdiction and Removal Act of 1875 established a general federal question jurisdiction and made it possible for, among others, interstate corporations to seek the friendly forum of the federal as opposed to the state courts. The 1875 measure also transferred some of the original jurisdiction of the circuit courts to the district courts. However, because the circuit courts were given increased appellate responsibilities, along with only modest adjustments in staffing, their dockets became congested. The resulting delay in appeals, combined with similar congestion in the Supreme Court, persuaded Congress in 1891 to establish the Circuit Courts of Appeals which became the nation's principal intermediate federal appellate courts. (See circuit courts of appeals act.) Although the old circuit courts became anachronisms, Congress delayed abolishing them until 1911.

Throughout the nineteenth century Supreme Court Justices held ambivalent attitudes toward circuit duty. The Justices complained about the rigors of circuit travel and the loss of time from responsibilities in the nation's capital, but most of them recognized that circuit judging offered a unique constitutional forum free from the immediate scrutiny of their brethren on the Court. "It is only as a Circuit Judge that the Chief Justice or any other Justice of the Supreme Court has, individually, any considerable power," Chief Justice salmon p. chase observed in 1868.

Circuit court judges contributed to the nationalization of American law and the economy. Justice joseph story, in the First Circuit, for example, broadly defined the federal admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. In perhaps the most important circuit court decision of the nineteenth century, Story held, in De Lovio v. Boit (1815), that this jurisdiction extended to all maritime contracts, including insurance policies, and to all torts and injuries committed on the high seas and in ports and harbors within the ebb and flow of the tide. This decision, coupled with Story's opinion eight years later in Chamberlain v. Chandler (1823), expanded federal control over admiralty and maritime-related economic activity and added certainty to contracts involving shipping and commerce.

The circuit courts extended national constitutional protection to property, contract, and corporate rights. Justice william paterson's 1795 decision on circuit in van horne ' s lessee v. dorrance was the first significant statement in the federal courts on behalf of vested rights. But in 1830 Justice henry baldwin anticipated by seven years the public use doctrine later embraced by the Supreme Court. In Bonaparte v. Camden & A. R. Co. he held that state legislatures could take private property only for public use, and that creation of a monopoly by a public charter voided its public nature. As new forms of corporate property emerged in the post-Civil War era, the circuit courts offered protection through the contract clause. In the early and frequently cited case of Gray v. Davis (1871) a circuit court held, and the Supreme Court subsequently affirmed, that a legislative act incorporating a railroad constituted a contract between the state and the company, and a state constitutional provision annulling that charter violated the contract clause.

The circuit courts' most dramatic nationalizing role involved commercial jurisprudence. Through their diversity jurisdiction the circuit courts used swift v. tyson (1842) to build a federal common law of commerce, thus encouraging business flexibility, facilitating investment security, and reducing costs to corporations. After the Civil War these courts eased limitations on the formation and operation of corporations in foreign states (In Re Spain, 1891), supported bondholders' rights, allowed forum shopping (Osgood v. The Chicago, Danville, and Vincennes R. R. Co., 1875), and favored employers in fellow-servant liability cases.

Ambivalence, contradiction, and frustration typified circuit court decisions involving civil and political rights. In 1823 Justice bushrod washington, in corfield v. coryell, held that the privileges and immunities clause guaranteed equal treatment of out-of-state citizens as to those privileges and immunities that belonged of right to citizens of all free governments, and which had at all times been enjoyed by citizens of the several states. After 1866 some circuit judges attempted to expand this narrow interpretation. Justice joseph p. bradley held, in Live-Stock Dealers' & Butchers' Ass'n v. Crescent City Live-Stock Landing & Slaughter-House Co. (1870), that the fourteenth amendment protected the privileges and immunities of whites and blacks as national citizens against state action. In 1871 the Circuit Court for the Southern District of Alabama, in United States v. Hall, decided that under the Fourteenth Amendment Congress had the power to protect by appropriate legislation all rights in the first eight amendments. And in Ho Ah Kow v. Nunan (1879) Justice stephen j. field struck down as cruel and unusual punishment, based on the Eighth Amendment and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, a San Francisco ordinance that required Chinese prisoners to have their hair cut to a length of one inch from their scalps.

These attempts to nationalize civil rights had little immediate impact. The Supreme Court in 1873 rejected Bradley's reading of the Fourteenth Amendment, and in 1871 the Circuit Court for the District of South Carolina in United States v. Crosby concluded that the right of a person to be secure in his or her home was not a right, privilege, or immunity granted by the Constitution. Neither the Supreme Court nor any other circuit court adopted the theory of congressional power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment set forth in Hall. Justice Field's Nunan opinion was most frequently cited in dissenting rather than majority opinions.

Political rights under the fifteenth amendment fared only slightly better. In United States v. Given (1873) the Circuit Court for the District of Delaware held that the Fifteenth Amendment did not limit congressional action to cases where states had denied or abridged the right to vote by legislation. In the same year, however, Justice ward hunt, in United States v. Anthony, concluded that the right or privilege of voting arose under state constitutions and that the states might restrict it to males.

Despite a regional structure and diverse personnel, these circuit courts placed national over state interests, reinforced the supremacy of federal power, promoted national economic development, and enhanced the position of interstate corporations. However, in matters of civil and political rights they not only disagreed about the scope of federal powers but also confronted a Supreme Court wedded to a traditional state-centered foundation for these rights.

Kermit L. Hall


Frankfurter, Felix and Landis, James M. 1927 The Business of the Supreme Court: A Study in the Federal Judicial System. Pages 3–86. New York: Macmillan.

Hall, Kermit L. 1975 The Civil War Era as a Crucible for Nationalizing the Lower Federal Courts. Prologue: The Journal of the National Archives 7:177–186.

Swisher, Carl B. 1974 The Taney Period, 1836–1864. Volume IV of The Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise History of the Supreme Court of the United States. Pages 248–292. New York: Macmillan.