History and organization of the federal judicial system

 One of the most important, most interesting, and, possibly, most confusing features of the judiciary in the United States is the dual court system; that is, each level of government (state and national) has its own set of courts. Thus, there is a separate court system for each state, one for the District of Columbia, and one for the federal government. Some legal problems are resolved entirely in the state courts, whereas others are handled entirely in the federal courts. Still others may receive attention from both sets of tribunals, which sometimes causes friction. 

The federal courts are discussed in this chapter and the state courts in chapter 2. THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT P rior to the adoption of the Constitution, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles, almost all functions of the national government were vested in a singlechamber legislature called Congress. There was no separation of executive and legislative powers. 

The absence of a national judiciary was considered a major weakness of the Articles of Confederation. Consequently, the delegates gathered at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 expressed widespread agreement that a national judiciary should be established. A good deal of disagreement arose, however, on the specific form that the judicial branch should take. 

The Constitutional Convention and Article III The first proposal presented to the Constitutional Convention was the Virginia Plan, which would have set up both a Supreme Court and inferior federal courts. Opponents of the Virginia Plan responded with the New Jersey Plan, which called for the creation of a single federal supreme tribunal. Supporters of the New Jersey Plan were especially disturbed by the idea of lower federal courts. 

They argued that the state courts could hear all cases in the first instance and that a right of appeal to the Supreme Court would be sufficient to protect national rights and provide uniform judgments throughout the country. The conflict between the states’ rights advocates and the nationalists was resolved by one of the many compromises that characterized the Constitutional Convention. 

The compromise is found in Article III of the Constitution, which begins, “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” The Judiciary Act of 1789 Once the Constitution was ratified, action on the federal judiciary came quickly. When the new Congress convened in 1789, its first major concern was judicial organization. Discussion of Senate Bill 1 involved

many of the same participants and arguments as were involved in the Constitutional Convention’s debates on the judiciary. Once again, the question was whether lower federal courts should be created at all or whether federal claims should first be heard in state courts. Attempts to resolve this controversy split Congress into two distinct groups. One group, which believed that federal law should be adjudicated in the state courts first and by the U.S. Supreme Court only on appeal, expressed 

  the fear that the new government would destroy the rights of the states. The other group of legislators, suspicious of the parochial prejudice of state courts, feared that litigants from other states and other countries would be dealt with unjustly. This latter group naturally favored a judicial system that included lower federal courts. The law that emerged from this debate, the Judiciary Act of 1789, set up a judicial system composed of a Supreme Court, consisting of a chief justice and five associate justices; three circuit courts, each comprising two justices of the Supreme Court and a district judge; and 13 district courts, each presided over by one district judge. The power to create inferior federal courts, then, was immediately exercised. Congress created not one but two sets of lower courts.

 THE U.S. SUPREME COURT S upreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote in The Supreme Court of the United States (1966) that the Court “is distinctly American in conception and function, and owes little to prior judicial institutions.” To understand what the framers of the Constitution envisioned for the Court, another American concept must be considered: the federal form of government. The Founders provided for both a national government and state governments; 

the courts of the states were to be bound by federal laws. However, final interpretation of federal laws could not be left to a state court and certainly not to several state tribunals, whose judgments might disagree. Thus, the Supreme Court must interpret federal legislation. Another of the Founders’ intentions was for the federal government to act directly upon individual citizens as well as upon the states. 

Given the Supreme Court’s importance to the U.S. system of government, it was perhaps inevitable that the Court would evoke great controversy. Charles Warren, a leading student of the Supreme Court, said in The Supreme Court in United States History: “Nothing in the Court’s history is more striking than the fact that while its significant and necessary place in the Federal form of Government has always been recognized by thoughtful and patriotic men, nevertheless, 

no branch of the Government and no institution under the Constitution has sustained more continuous attack or reached its present position after more vigorous opposition.” The Court’s First Decade George Washington, the first president of the United States, established two important traditions when he appointed the first Supreme Court justices. First, he began the practice of naming to the Court those with whom he was politically compatible. 

Washington, the only president ever to have an opportunity to appoint the entire federal judiciary, filled federal judge   ships, without exception, with faithful members of the Federalist Party. Second, Washington’s appointees offered roughly equal geographic representation on the federal courts. His first six appointees to the Supreme Court included three Northerners and three Southerners.

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