The Midnight Judges Act (also known as the Judiciary Act of 1801; , and officially An act to provide for the more convenient organization of the Courts of the United States) 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.
[Turner, Katheryn. "Republican Policy and the Judiciary Act of." William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 22. January 1965. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. Page 5.]
The Supreme Court Justices had often expressed concern and suggested that the judges of the Supreme and circuit courts be divided. The Act was repealed by Congress on January 22, 1802.
Effect on judicial divisions and authority
The Act became law on February 13, 1801 and 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. The Act also created 16 new judgeships that
John Adams (October 30, 1735 – July 4, 1826) was an American statesman, attorney, diplomat, writer, and Founding Fathers of the United States, Founding Father who served as the second president of the United States from 1797 to 1801. Befor ...
rapidly began to fill in the last weeks of his presidency. These judges came to be known as the "Midnight Judges".
The Act 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 Federal 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 judge-ships were abolished in 1802, and the Justices continued to ride circuit until 1879. One of the judges on the Supreme Court appointed by Adams was Chief Justice John Marshall
The Act 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
The points of the compass are a set of horizontal, radially arrayed compass directions (or azimuths) used in navigation and cartography. A compass rose is primarily composed of four cardinal directions—north, east, south, and west—each ...
Indiana () is a U.S. state in the Midwestern United States. It is the 38th-largest by area and the 17th-most populous of the 50 States. Its capital and largest city is Indianapolis. Indiana was admitted to the United States as the 19th st ...
Territories, and the District of Potomac
from the District of Columbia
and pieces of
Maryland ( ) is a state in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. It shares borders with Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia to its south and west; Pennsylvania to its north; and Delaware and the Atlantic Ocean to ...
, which was the first time a federal judicial district
crossed state lines. However, the district courts for Kentucky
Tennessee ( , ), officially the State of Tennessee, is a landlocked state in the Southeastern region of the United States. Tennessee is the 36th-largest by area and the 15th-most populous of the 50 states. It is bordered by Kentucky to th ...
were abolished, and their judges reassigned to the circuit courts.
In addition, it gave the circuit courts
Jurisdiction (from Latin 'law' + 'declaration') is the legal term for the legal authority granted to a legal entity to enact justice. In federations like the United States, areas of jurisdiction apply to local, state, and federal levels.
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 19 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. The famous Supreme Court case of '' Marbury v. Madison
'' involved one of these "midnight" appointments, although it was an appointment of a justice of the peace for 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.
None of those attempts to fix the situation facing the Supreme Court were successful until John Adams took control in 1797.
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
The Federalist Party was a conservative political party which was the first political party in the United States. As such, under Alexander Hamilton, it dominated the national government from 1789 to 1801.
Defeated by the Jeffersonian Republ ...
and the rising
The Democratic-Republican Party, known at the time as the Republican Party and also referred to as the Jeffersonian Republican Party among other names, was an American political party founded by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the early ...
, John Adams successfully reorganized the nation's court system with the Judiciary Act of 1801.
[Stephenson, D. Grier; ''Campaigns and The Court: The U.S. Supreme Court in Presidential Elections''; New York: Columbia University Press, c1999. Page 48.]
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.
["The John Adams Administration". Presidential Administration Profiles for Students. Online Edition. Gale Group. Pages 1, 3.]
The main issues in this election were taxes, the military, peace negotiations with France, and the Alien and Sedition Acts
and Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
The campaign leading up to this election and the election itself revealed sharp divisions within the Federalist Party.
Alexander Hamilton (January 11, 1755 or 1757July 12, 1804) was an American military officer, statesman, and Founding Father who served as the first United States secretary of the treasury from 1789 to 1795.
Born out of wedlock in Charles ...
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 and Sedition Acts.
The results of this election favored Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr over John Adams, but both Jefferson and Burr got 73 electoral votes.] ["The Thomas Jefferson Administrations". Presidential Administration Profiles for Students. Online Edition. Gale Group, 2002. Page 3.] 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. [
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.] Jefferson spoke of dangerous "entangling alliances" with foreign countries as President George Washington had done before him, and made a plea for national unity claiming that "we are all republicans and we are all federalists." Once in office, 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.
This controversial case began with Adams' appointment of Federalist William Marbury as a justice of the peace
A justice of the peace (JP) is a judicial officer of a lower or ''puisne'' court, elected or appointed by means of a commission (letters patent) to keep the peace. In past centuries the term commissioner of the peace was often used with the sam ... in the District of Columbia. When the newly appointed Secretary of State James Madison
James Madison Jr. (March 16, 1751June 28, 1836) was an American statesman, diplomat, and Founding Father. He served as the fourth president of the United States from 1809 to 1817. Madison is hailed as the "Father of the Constitution" for hi ... refused to process Marbury's selection, Marbury requested a writ of mandamus
(; ) is a judicial remedy in the form of an order from a court to any government, subordinate court, corporation, or public authority, to do (or forbear from doing) some specific act which that body is obliged under law to do (or refrain fr ..., which would force Madison to make his appointment official. Chief Justice John Marshall declared that the Supreme Court did not have the authority to force Madison to make the appointment official. 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. In deciding the constitutionality of an act of Congress, Marshall established judicial review
Judicial review is a process under which executive, legislative and administrative actions are subject to review by the judiciary. A court with authority for judicial review may invalidate laws, acts and governmental actions that are incomp ..., 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
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest-ranking judicial body in the United States. Its membership, as set by the Judiciary Act of 1869, consists of the chief justice of the United States and eight associate justices, any six ..., Samuel Chase. Chase, a Federalist appointed to the Supreme Court by George Washington
George Washington (February 22, 1732, 1799) was an American military officer, statesman, and Founding Father who served as the first president of the United States from 1789 to 1797. Appointed by the Continental Congress as commander of t ..., had publicly attacked the repeal in May 1803 while issuing his charge to a grand jury in Baltimore, Maryland
Baltimore ( , locally: or ) is the most populous city in the U.S. state of Maryland, fourth most populous city in the Mid-Atlantic, and the 30th most populous city in the United States with a population of 585,708 in 2020. Baltimore was ...: "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." 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?" [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.] The House took Jefferson's suggestion, impeaching Chase in 1804. He was acquitted by the Senate of all charges in March 1805, with Vice President Aaron Burr presiding.
Federal question jurisdiction
The repeal of the Judiciary Act also ended the brief period of comprehensive
In United States law, federal question jurisdiction is a type of subject-matter jurisdiction that gives United States federal courts the power to hear civil cases where the plaintiff alleges a violation of the United States Constitution, federal .... The federal courts would not receive such jurisdiction again until 1875.
Midnight regulations are United States federal government regulations created by executive branch agencies during the transition period of an outgoing president's administration.
Process of creating new regulations
The United States Congress p ..., related term
* '' Stuart v. Laird'' (1803)
* James M. O'Fallon, "The Case of Benjamin Moore: A Lost Episode in the Struggle over Repeal of the 1801 Judiciary Act", 11 43 (1993).
1801 in American law
6th United States Congress
History of the Supreme Court of the United States
United States federal judiciary legislation