The Judiciary Act of 1801 and the Midnight Judges

Judge’s arm wielding the judicial gavel
Political Controversy of the Judiciary Act of 1801. Getty Images

 The Judiciary Act of 1801 reorganized the federal judicial branch by creating the nation’s first circuit court judgeships. The act and the last-minute manner in which several so-called “midnight judges” were appointed resulted in a classic battle between the Federalists, who wanted a stronger federal government, and the weaker government Anti-Federalists for control of the still-developing U.S. court system.

Background: The Election of 1800

Until ratification of the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution in 1804, the electors of the Electoral College cast their votes for president and vice president separately. As a result, the sitting president and vice president could be from different political parties or factions. Such was the case in 1800 when incumbent Federalist President John Adams faced off against incumbent Republican Anti-Federalist Vice President Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election.

In the election, sometimes called the “Revolution of 1800,” Jefferson defeated Adams. However, before Jefferson was inaugurated, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed, and still-President Adams signed the Judiciary Act of 1801. After a year filled with political controversy over its enactment and implantation, the act was repealed in 1802.

What Adams’ Judiciary Act of 1801 Did

Among other provisions, the Judiciary Act of 1801, enacted along with the Organic Act for the District of Columbia, reduced the number of U.S. Supreme Court justices from six to five and eliminated the requirement that the Supreme Court justices also “ride circuit” to preside over cases in the lower courts of appeals.

To take care of the circuit court duties, the law created 16 new presidentially-appointed judgeships spread over six judicial districts.

In many ways the act’s further divisions of the states into more circuit and district courts served to make the federal courts even more powerful than the state courts, a move strongly opposed by the Anti-Federalists.

The Congressional Debate

Passage of the Judiciary Act of 1801 did not come easily. The legislative process in Congress came to a virtual halt during the debate between Federalists and Jefferson’s Anti-Federalist Republicans.

Congressional Federalists and their incumbent President John Adams supported the act, arguing that more judges and courts would help protect the federal government from hostile state governments they called “the corrupters of public opinion,” in reference to their vocal opposition to the replacement of the Articles of Confederation by the Constitution.  

Anti-Federalist Republicans and their incumbent vice president Thomas Jefferson argued that the act would further weaken the state governments and help Federalists gain influential appointed jobs or “political patronage positions” within the federal government. The Republicans also argued against expanding the powers of the very courts that had prosecuted many of their immigrant supporters under the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress and signed by President Adams in 1789, the Alien and Sedition Acts were designed to silence and weaken the Anti-Federalist Republican Party. The laws gave the government the power to prosecute and deport foreigners, as well as limiting their right to vote.

While an early version of the Judiciary Act of 1801 had been introduced before the 1800 presidential election, Federalist President John Adams signed the act into law on February 13, 1801. Less than three weeks later, Adams’ term and the Federalist’s majority in the Sixth Congress would end.

When Anti-Federalist Republican President Thomas Jefferson took office on March 1, 1801, his first initiative was to see to it that the Republican-controlled Seventh Congress repealed the act he so passionately detested.

The ‘Midnight Judges’ Controversy

Aware that Anti-Federalist Republican Thomas Jefferson would soon sit as his desk, outgoing President John Adams had quickly—and controversially—filled the 16 new circuit judgeships, as well as several other new court-related offices created by the Judiciary Act of 1801, mostly with members of his own Federalist party.

In 1801, the District of Columbia consisted of two counties, Washington (now Washington, D.C.) and Alexandria (now Alexandria, Virginia). On March 2, 1801, outgoing President Adams nominated 42 people to serve as justices of the peace in the two counties. The Senate, still controlled by Federalists, confirmed the nominations on March 3. Adams began signing the 42 new judges’ commissions but did not complete the task until late in the night of his last official day in office. As a result, Adams’ controversial actions became known as the “midnight judges” affair, which was about to become even more controversial.

Having just been named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, former Secretary of State John Marshall placed the great seal of the United States on the commissions of all 42 of the “midnight justices.” However, under the law at the time, judicial commissions were not considered official until they were physically delivered to the new judges.

Mere hours before Anti-Federalist Republican President-elect Jefferson took office, Chief Justice John Marshall’s brother James Marshall began delivering the commissions. But by the time President Adams left office at noon on March 4, 1801, only a handful of the new judges in Alexandria County had received their commissions. None of the commissions bound for the 23 new judges in Washington County had been delivered and President Jefferson would start his term with a judicial crisis.

The Supreme Court Decides Marbury v. Madison

When Anti-Federalist Republican President Thomas Jefferson first sat down in the Oval Office, he found the still undelivered “midnight judges” commissions issued by his rival Federalist predecessor John Adams waiting for him. Jefferson immediately reappointed the six Anti-Federalist Republicans who Adams had appointed, but refused to reappoint the remaining 11 Federalists. While most of the snubbed Federalists accepted Jefferson’s action, Mr. William Marbury, to say the least, did not.

Marbury, an influential Federalist Party leader from Maryland, sued the federal government in an attempt to force the Jefferson administration to deliver his judicial commission and allow him to take his place on the bench.

Marbury’s suit resulted in one of the most important decisions in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court, Marbury v. Madison.

In its Marbury v. Madison decision, the Supreme Court established the principle that a federal court could declare a law enacted by Congress void if that law was found to be inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution. “A Law repugnant to the Constitution is void,” stated the ruling.

In his suit, Marbury asked the courts to issue a writ of mandamus forcing President Jefferson to deliver all of the undelivered judicial commissions signed by former President Adams. A writ of mandamus is an order issued by a court to a government official ordering that official to properly carry out their official duty or correct an abuse or error in the application of their power.

While finding that Marbury was entitled to his commission, the Supreme Court refused to issue the writ of mandamus. Chief Justice John Marshall, writing the Court’s unanimous decision, held that the Constitution did not give the Supreme Court the power to issue writs of mandamus. Marshall further held that a section of the Judiciary Act of 1801 providing that writs of mandamus might be issued was not consistent with the Constitution and was therefore void.

While it specifically denied the Supreme Court the power to issue writs of mandamus, Marbury v. Madison greatly increased the Court’s overall power by establishing the rule that “it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Indeed, since Marbury v. Madison, the power to decide the constitutionality of laws enacted by Congress has been reserved to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Repeal of the Judiciary Act Of 1801

Anti-Federalist Republican President Jefferson moved swiftly to undo his Federalist predecessor’s expansion of the federal courts. In January 1802, Jefferson’s staunch supporter, Kentucky Senator John Breckinridge introduced a bill repealing the Judiciary Act of 1801. In February, the hotly debated bill was passed by the Senate in a narrow 16-15 vote. The Anti-Federalist Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed the Senate bill without amendment in March and after a year of controversy and political intrigue, the Judiciary Act of 1801 was no more.