OTD in History… September 24, 1789, Washington signs the Judiciary Act establishes the first Supreme Court
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history September 24, 1789, President George Washington signs the Judiciary Act passed by the First Congress establishing and outlining the Supreme Court. The act dictated that the court would include six justices who would be in court for two sessions each year. On that day, Washington nominated all six justices including the chief justice. Washington submitted nominations of “John Jay as chief justice, and John Rutledge, William Cushing, John Blair, Robert Harrison, and James Wilson to be associate justices.”
At the Constitutional Convention two years earlier, the creation of a Supreme Court caused few objections except for the creation of lower federal courts, which would encroach on states’ rights. Some delegates expressed concern about the power the judicial branch would have but they agreed they could not determine an alternative. Oliver Ellsworth’s draft of the article became part of the Constitution. Article III of the Constitution delineated the Supreme Court stating, “Judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and such inferior Courts.” The Constitution gave the Supreme Court responsibility to determine the constitutionality of all the nations’ law, particularly “foreign treaties, foreign diplomats, admiralty practice, and maritime jurisdiction.”
Even delegate James Madison was concerned the judiciary had the same power as the legislative branch of government but realized it was necessary to have that check and balance. During the ratification process, Alexander Hamilton defended the judiciary in the Federalist Papers, №78, writing, “The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts. A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges as a fundamental law. It must, therefore, belong to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body. If there should happen to be an irreconcilable variance between the two, that which has the superior obligation and validity ought, of course, to be preferred: in other words, the constitution ought to be preferred to the statute; the intention of the people to the intention of their agents.”
The Constitution left Congress with the responsibility for determining the court system. Congress decided to create a Federal court system, the trial courts had “broader jurisdiction” over national laws in each state. Senator Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut continued delineating the Supreme Court for Congress, he later became the third Chief Justice and with the help of William Patterson, who would also sit on the Supreme Court wrote the judiciary bill. The bill was voted out of the committee on June 12, 1789. The Senate first passed the bill on July 17, with the House of Representatives taking two months to pass an amended bill, finally on September 21, after another round of revision in the Senate the house passed the bill on September 21, sending it to Washington.
The Judiciary Act set up the parameters of the Supreme Court its jurisdictions over federal appellate and state courts. The law organized the courts’ format and sessions: “SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the supreme court of the United States shall consist of a chief justice and five associate justices, any four of whom shall be a quorum, and shall hold annually at the seat of government two sessions, the one commencing the first Monday of February, and the other the first Monday of August.”
The law set up the federal court system and created 13 districts in the 11 states that ratified the Constitution, the others would be added afterward. Massachusetts had two districts, one of which was Maine, while Virginia also had two, Kentucky and Virginia and West Virginia. The law created circuit courts and district courts. Federal courts were superior to state courts and in interstate disputes, the case could be heard at the federal level. The law also created the Office of the Attorney General, who represented the nation in front of the Supreme Court and provided a United State Attorney and Marshal for each court district.
Right after signing the law, President Washington submitted his nominations to the Senate. Washington nominated John Jay for Chief Justice of the United States, John Rutledge, William Cushing, Robert H. Harrison, James Wilson, and John Blair Jr. as Associate Justices. He nominated Edmund Randolph for Attorney General and filed nominations for district judges, United States Attorneys, and the United States Marshals in the states’ court districts. The Senate quickly confirmed Washington’s Supreme Court nominees on September 26. Harrison decided not to serve, and Washington nominated James Iredell in his stead. The Supreme Court convened for their first session on February 1, 1790, in the then capital, New York City at the Royal Exchange Building.
Bernard Schwartz writing in his book A History of the Supreme Court discussed the Supreme Court’s impact, “From 1789 to our own day, the Supreme Court’s power to review state court decisions has been what the Court historian characterized as “the keystone of the whole arch of federal judicial power.” While Schwartz said, “With the passage of the first Judiciary Act, the stage was set for the Supreme Court to play its part in the unfolding drama of the new nation’s development. The actual scenario would, however, depend upon the personnel of the new tribunal and the manner in which they performed their awesome constitutional role.” (Schwartz, 26)
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Schwartz, Bernard. A Basic History of the US Supreme Court. Huntington, NY: Krieger, 1979.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.