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What is the Judiciary Act?

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  • Written By: Nicholas K.
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 05 November 2016
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The Judiciary Act of 1789 was passed by the U.S. Congress to organize the Supreme Court and other federal courts. This act divided the country into judicial districts featuring a circuit court and district courts to hear a variety of cases. Another component of the Judiciary Act was the creation of the office of Attorney General as well as the U.S. Marshals service. Congress also allowed individuals sued outside of their states to try their cases in federal rather than state courts. In a landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court found the Act’s provision for writs of mandamus unconstitutional in 1803.

Members of Congress in 1789 voted to divide the U.S. into 13 districts to streamline the judicial process. These districts were initially allocated to the 11 states that ratified the new Constitution — North Carolina and Rhode Island were given districts in 1790. Each judicial district was assigned a circuit court and a district court that would hear cases beyond the realm of local courts. Circuit courts were presided over by traveling Supreme Court justices who heard criminal cases. District courts handled minor crimes and cases dealing with crimes on the high seas.

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This federal Act created several offices intended to organize law enforcement and justice in the U.S.. Congress including the Office of the Attorney General. The Attorney General was assigned the role of defense attorney when the government was sued. This office also coordinated investigations into breaches of federal law by individuals and businesses. The Judiciary Act also assigned a U.S. Marshal and a federal attorney to each judicial district. U.S. Marshals were directed to carry out orders from federal courts while U.S. Attorneys were assigned to pursue legal action on behalf of the federal government in their districts.

Congress created the power of removal to federal courts in the text of the Judiciary Act. The power of removal refers to the ability of a defendant to ask for a hearing before a federal a judge if the other litigant is based in a different state. This provision was designed to protect a defendant from potential biases and corruption in an accuser’s home state. The Judiciary Act also reinforces the constitutional provision that the Supreme Court has final say on interpretations of federal law.

The Supreme Court was involved in eliminating a provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 in the Marbury v. Madison case. This 1803 decision found that the Act’s provision for writs of mandamus from the Supreme Court was unconstitutional. A writ of mandamus is an order from a higher court to a lower court to carry out or not carry out a specific administrative function. The Judiciary Act of 1789 is often remembered as the first bill from Congress that was subject to judicial review under the concept of checks and balances.

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