Midnight Judges Act

Midnight Judges Act

The Midnight Judges Act (also known as the Judiciary Act of 1801; 2 Stat. 89) represented an effort to solve an issue in the U.S. Supreme Court during the early 19th century. There was concern, beginning in 1789, about the system that required the justices of the Supreme Court to “ride circuit” and reiterate decisions made in the appellate level courts.[1] The Supreme Court justices had often voiced concern and suggested that the judges of the Supreme and circuit courts be divided.


Effect on judicial divisions and authority

The Act reduced the number of seats on the Supreme Court from 6 to 5, effective upon the next vacancy in the Court. No such vacancy occurred during the brief period the Act was in effect, so the size of the Court remained unchanged.

It reorganized the circuit courts, doubling them in number from three to six, and created three new circuit judgeships for each circuit (except the sixth, which received only one circuit judge). In addition to creating new lifetime posts for Federalist judges, the circuit judgeships were intended to relieve the justices of the Supreme Court from the hardships of riding circuit (that is, sitting as judges on the circuit courts). The circuit judgeships were abolished in 1802, and the justices continued to ride circuit until 1869. One of the judges on the Supreme Court appointed by Adams was Chief Justice John Marshall.

It also reorganized the district courts, creating ten. These courts were to be presided over by the existing district judges in most cases. In addition to subdividing several of the existing district courts, it created the District of Ohio which covered the Northwest and Indiana Territories, and the District of Potomac from the District of Columbia and pieces of Maryland and Virginia, which was the first time a federal judicial district crossed state lines. However, the district courts for Kentucky and Tennessee were abolished, and their judges reassigned to the circuit courts.

In addition, it gave the circuit courts jurisdiction to hear "all cases in law or equity, arising under the constitution and laws of the United States, and treaties made, or which shall be made, under their authority." This form of jurisdiction, now known as federal question jurisdiction, had not previously been granted to the federal courts.

The Midnight Judges

In the nineteen days between passage of this Act and the conclusion of his administration, President Adams quickly filled as many of the newly created circuit judgeships as possible. The new judges were known as the Midnight Judges because Adams was said to be signing their appointments at midnight prior to President Thomas Jefferson's inauguration. (Actually, only three commissions were signed on his last day.) The famous Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison[2] involved one of these "midnight" appointments, although it was an appointment to a judgeship of the District of Columbia, which was authorized under a different Act of Congress, not the Judiciary Act.

Attempts to solve this situation before and throughout the presidency of John Adams were overshadowed by more pressing foreign and domestic issues that occupied Congress during the early years of the nation’s development.[1] None of those attempts to fix the situation facing the Supreme Court was successful until John Adams took control in 1797.[3]

Faced with the Election of 1800, a watershed moment in American history that represented not only the struggle to correctly organize the foundation of the United States government but also the culmination of struggle between the waning Federalist Party and the rising Democratic-Republican Party, John Adams successfully reorganized the nation’s court system with the Judiciary Act of 1801.[4] Adams was and is often attacked for undercutting the newly elected Democratic-Republican executive branch by creating more positions for Federalist judges. There are arguments supporting both Adams's sincerity in simply trying to create what the Supreme Court had supported for so long and Adams's efforts to fill the court with Federalists before he left office.

The Election of 1800

During the Election of 1800, there was an intense growth of partisan politics, the political party of the executive branch of government changed for the first time, and there was an unprecedented peaceful transition of the political orientation of the country’s leadership.[5] The main issues in this election were taxes, the military, peace negotiations with France, and the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.[5] The campaign leading up to this election and the election itself revealed sharp divisions within the Federalist Party. Alexander Hamilton and the extreme Federalists attacked Adams for his persistence for peace with France, his opposition to building an army, and his failure to enforce the Alien & Sedition Acts.[3]

The results of this election favored Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr over John Adams, but both Jefferson and Burr got 73 electoral votes.[6] Presented with a tie, the House of Representatives, which was dominated by Federalists and led by Alexander Hamilton, eventually decided the election in favor of Thomas Jefferson. Democratic-Republicans also won control of the legislative branch of government after the congressional elections.[7]

Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated March 4, 1801 without the presence of President John Adams. Jefferson's inaugural address attempted to appease the Federalists by promising to maintain the strength of the federal government and to pay off the national debt.[6] Jefferson spoke of dangerous “entangling alliances” with foreign countries as George Washington did, and made a plea for national unity claiming that “we are all republicans and we are all federalists.”[6] Once elected, Jefferson set out to rescind the Judiciary Act of 1801 and remove newly appointed Federalists.

Marbury v. Madison

The implications of Adams's actions in appointing Federalists to the Supreme Court and the Federal courts, led to one of the most important decisions in American judicial history. Marbury v. Madison solidified the United States' system of checks and balances and gave the judicial branch equal power with the executive and legislative branches.[6] This controversial case began with Adams’s appointment of Federalist William Marbury as a Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia. When the newly appointed Secretary of State James Madison refused to process Marbury’s selection, Marbury requested a writ of mandamus, which would force Madison to make his appointment official.[6] Chief Justice John Marshall declared that the Supreme Court did not have the authority to force Madison to make the appointment official.[6] This statement actually challenged the Judiciary Act of 1789, which stated that the Supreme Court did, in fact, have the right to issue those writs. Marshall, therefore, ruled that part of the Judiciary Act of 1789 unconstitutional because the Constitution did not expressly grant this power to the judiciary.[6] In deciding the constitutionality of an act of Congress, Marshall established judicial review, the most significant development in the history of the Supreme Court.

Impeachment of Samuel Chase

Among the repercussions of the repeal of the Judiciary Act was the first and, to date, only impeachment of a sitting Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Chase. Chase, a Federalist appointed to the Supreme Court by George Washington, had publicly attacked the repeal in May 1803 while issuing his charge to a grand jury in Baltimore, Maryland: "The late alteration of the federal judiciary...will take away all security for property and personal liberty, and our Republican constitution will sink into a mobocracy, the worst of all popular governments."[8] Jefferson responded to the attack by suggesting to his supporters in the U.S. House of Representatives that Chase be impeached, asking, "Ought the seditious and official attack on the principles of our Constitution . . .to go unpunished?"[9] The House took Jefferson's suggestion, impeaching Chase in 1804. He was acquitted by the Senate of all charges in March 1805.

Federal question jurisdiction

The repeal of the Judiciary Act also ended the brief period of comprehensive federal question jurisdiction. The federal courts would not receive such jurisdiction again until 1875.

See also

  • John Adams judicial appointments


  1. ^ a b Turner, Katheryn. “Republican Policy and the Judiciary Act of 1801.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 22. January 1965. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. Page 5.
  2. ^ Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803).
  3. ^ a b Elkins, Stanley M.; McKitrick, Eric; The Age of Federalism; New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. p. 731.
  4. ^ Stephenson, D. Grier; Campaigns and The Court: The U.S. Supreme Court in Presidential Elections; New York: Columbia University Press, c1999. Page 48.
  5. ^ a b “The John Adams Administration.” Presidential Administration Profiles for Students. Online Edition. Gale Group. Pages 1, 3.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g “The Thomas Jefferson Administrations.” Presidential Administration Profiles for Students. Online Edition. Gale Group, 2002. Page 3.
  7. ^ Elkins, Stanley M.; McKitrick, Eric; The Age of Federalism; New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. p. 731 - 732.
  8. ^ Rehnquist, William H. Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson. Quill: 1992, p.52
  9. ^ Jerry W. Knudson, "The Jeffersonian Assault on the Federalist Judiciary, 1802-1805: Political Forces and Press Reaction," American Journal of Legal History 1970 14(1): 55-75; Richard Ellis, "The Impeachment of Samuel Chase," in American Political Trials, ed. by Michael R. Belknap (1994) pp 57-76, quote on p. 64.

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