Judiciary Act of 1789: Definition & Summary

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy

Mark has a Ph.D in Social Science Education

The definition of the Judiciary Act of 1789 is responsible for creating the design of our federal court system that is still used today. The Judiciary Act of 1789 added more details to the previously and intentionally vague Article III of the Constitution. Research and examine a detailed summary of the Judiciary Act of 1789 and the offices created by this legislation. Updated: 10/14/2021

What Does Article III Say?

The problem with the Constitution, more often than not, is that it is maddeningly vague about concepts that seem to matter deeply. The First Amendment, for instance, guarantees freedom of speech--but what, exactly, is 'speech'? The Second Amendment protects the freedom to bear arms--but what does that mean, 'arms'? All kinds of weapons? None of them, except flintlock muskets? And what, while we're on the subject, what does 'freedom' even mean?

This wasn't entirely unplanned, though. Even though the Constitution's Article III is similarly indistinct on matters of the judicial branch, it left the details to Congress. And that body came through with a law in 1789: the Judiciary Act, which filled in the gaps and created the modern federal court system.

The Supreme Court building in Washington, DC

The Constitution is pretty easy to read once you know the various sections. Article I is on the Congress, Article II is on the executive branch (the President), and Article III is on the judiciary. However, it seems like the Founding Fathers wrote the entire document in descending order of importance, since each successive Article is shorter than the one before it.

And as for Article III? Well, all it says is that there's going to be a 'Supreme Court,' and that it can judge matters of constitutional law, treaties, and conventions, and that there's going to be a Chief Justice (referred to in the sixth clause of the Article). But as far as how many courts there would be--or even how many justices there would be on the Supreme Court, other than the chief--it was left unsaid.

The important part of the Article really is this: '…and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.' This was a pretty clear signal that the Founding Fathers didn't want to try to sketch out a working court system, beyond the crown jewel of the Supreme Court. It would be up to Congress to figure out the details.

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The Judiciary Act of 1789

Almost immediately after the Constitution's ratification, the Congress got down to it. The Judiciary Act of 1789 establishes the structure of the court system we use today, remarkably unchanged over two centuries' use.

The first thing the Act does is establish what the Supreme Court is going to look like: one Chief Justice and five Associate Justices (this would change in number over time, settling eventually at eight associate justices). The Act also specified what the Court would be doing, since the Constitution didn't really get into it. The Supreme Court, thanks to the Judiciary Act, is given control of civil matters between states, or between a state and the federal government, or involving foreign ambassadors. Additionally, the Court would handle appellate decisions arising from lower federal courts, which means if a party to a suit wants to appeal the decision to the next highest court up, the Supreme Court is the end of the line for such appeals.

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