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Midnight Judges: Definition & Significance

Midnight Judges: Definition & Significance
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  • 0:00 Who Were the Midnight Judges?
  • 0:30 How Were Midnight…
  • 3:11 The Controversy Over…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Andrea Stephenson

Andrea has a Juris Doctor and has spoken at legal conferences on government transparency.

This lesson will teach who the Midnight Judges were, the history behind their appointments, and why their appointments were controversial. You will also learn what landmark case sprung from the appointment of the Midnight Judges and what has been its lasting effect.

Who were the Midnight Judges?

'Midnight judges' was the term the Democrat-Republicans associated with the judicial appointments made by President John Adams at the very end of his presidential term. The term was coined because it was alleged that President Adams stayed up until midnight of his last night in office to finish paperwork to appoint his Federalist friends and supporters into judicial offices before President Thomas Jefferson, who was considered to be a Democrat-Republican, took office on March 4, 1801.

How Were the Midnight Judges Appointed?

In the early 1800s, the predominant political parties were the Federalist and the Democratic-Republican Parties. Much like the Republican and Democratic Parties of today, the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were at odds with each other and did not agree on a number of political issues. In the November 1800 presidential election, Thomas Jefferson, a Democrat-Republican, beat President Adams, the incumbent and a Federalist. Due to the structure of how presidential elections and inaugurations work in the U.S., even though Thomas Jefferson was elected in November 1800, he would not take office until March 1801.

Typically, the time period between a November presidential election and March inauguration is considered the lame duck session, because generally nothing gets done or passed in Congress. However, due to the Federalist's fear of what the incoming Democrat-Republican president and other elected representatives would do upon taking office, during this time Congress and President Adams were far from being lame ducks.

In fact, among other things, they collaboratively passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 (Judiciary Act) and the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801 (Organic Act). The Judiciary Act reduced the U.S. Supreme Court to five justices from six, eliminated some judiciary duties, and created 16 additional judgeship positions for the six Federal Circuits. The Organic Act placed the District of Columbia under the U.S. Congress's control; organized it into two districts, Washington County and Alexandria County; and established a court system for the District of Columbia.

Due to the new 58 judgeships created under both laws, President Adams submitted nominations to Congress for 42 Federalist judges to sit in the newly-minted courts of the District of Columbia (23 for Washington County and 19 for Alexandria County) and for 16 Federalist judges to the new Federal Circuit court positions. The Senate confirmed all the nominates by March 3, 1801, the day before Thomas Jefferson was to take office as the new president.

Upon President Adams receiving the confirmations, he began executing the official commissions for each individual's appointment, which took him, so it is said, until midnight of the eve of his last night in office. After President Adams signed the commissions, Secretary of State John Marshall sealed the commissions with the seal of the U.S. and sent them out for delivery via James Marshall, his brother. Unfortunately, none of the 23 Washington County appointed individuals received their commissions before Thomas Jefferson's inauguration.

The Controversy over the Midnight Judges

The timing of the passage of the Judiciary Act and the Organic Act immediately met with controversy and opposition from the Democrat-Republicans. They felt that the passage and the hurried appointment by President Adams of the new judges were attempts to align the courts with Federalist values and allies. This highly angered the newly elected officials. Therefore, when President Thomas Jefferson took office, he along with the new Democrat-Republican controlled Congress immediately set out to repeal the Judiciary Act.

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