Judiciary Act of 1875 18 Stat. 470 (1875)

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JUDICIARY ACT OF 1875 18 Stat. 470 (1875)

For three-quarters of a century after the abortive judiciary act of 1801, federal courts lacked any general federal question jurisdiction, that is, jurisdiction over cases arising under federal law. The 1875 act, adopted on the same day as the civil rights act of 1875, was one of Congress's last pieces of nationalizing legislation during the era of reconstruction; its primary purpose was to provide a federal judicial forum for the assertion of newly created federal rights. Using the language of Article III of the Constitution, Congress gave the circuit courts jurisdiction over cases "arising under the Constitution or laws of the United States" or under national treaties, provided that the matter in dispute exceeded $500. The act also authorized the removalofcases from state to federal courts by either plaintiffs or defendants, when those cases could have been brought originally in the federal courts.

In part, the 1875 Judiciary Act's sponsors justified this widening of federal jurisdiction as a response to a commerce that had become national in scope. In particular, they sought to relieve railroads from the need to contend with unfriendly state courts in cases involving foreclosure, receivership, taxation, and even injuries to person and property—an objective which Populists came to criticize. In the Pacific Railroad Removal Cases (1885) the Supreme Court read the new jurisdictional grant so expansively that in 1887 Congress increased the jurisdictional amount, eliminated removal by plaintiffs, and insulated from appeal federal court orders remanding removed cases to the state courts.

The chief long-term significance of the 1875 act was its establishment of a generalized federal question jurisdiction—the jurisdiction that is seen today as the federal courts' indispensable function. In felix frankfurter's words, in 1875 the lower federal courts "ceased to be restricted tribunals of fair dealing between citizens of different states and became the primary and powerful reliances for vindicating every right given by the Constitution, the laws, and treaties of the United States."

Kenneth L. Karst


Chadbourn, James H. and Levin, Leo 1942 Original Jurisdiction of Federal Questions. University of Pennsylvania Law Review 90:639–674.

Frankfurter, Felix and Landis, James M. 1928 The Business of the Supreme Court. Pages 64–69. New York: Macmillan.

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Judiciary Act of 1875 18 Stat. 470 (1875)

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