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First Changes to the Federal Courts

In 1801 the lame-duck Federalist majority in Congress, which favored a strong national government, made radical changes to the federal courts. The Judiciary Act of 1801 expanded federal jurisdiction, eliminated Supreme Court justices’ circuit court duties, and created 16 federal circuit court judgeships. Outgoing President John Adams quickly filled the new positions with Federalist lifetime appointees, known as the “midnight judges.” When Democratic-Republicans gained a majority in Congress the following year, they repealed the 1801 act and abolished the new judgeships.

Congress determines the structure and authority of the federal court system. After defining the federal judiciary in 1789, Congress used its constitutional power to alter the courts’ structure and operations in 1801 and 1802.