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Oliver Ellsworth and Abigail Wolcott Ellsworth (detail), oil on canvas by Ralph Earl, 1792

Senators Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut and William Paterson of New Jersey were the primary authors of the bill that defined the federal judiciary system. The act established federal courts throughout the nation, required Supreme Court justices to sit on the US Circuit Courts, and left considerable power to state judiciaries. It passed Congress as the Judiciary Act of 1789.

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Oliver Ellsworth and Abigail Wolcott Ellsworth (detail)

Congress Creates the Federal Court System

The U.S. Constitution established the nation’s Supreme Court but left Congress to determine the structure of the federal court system. In the Judiciary Act of 1789, the First Congress (1789-1791) established district and circuit courts, defined the federal courts’ jurisdiction and appellate powers, and created the position of U.S. attorney general. Although amended many times, the act remains the foundation of the U.S. judicial system.

I consider a proper arrangement of the judiciary, however difficult to establish, among the best securities the government will have

Senator Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, Letter to Richard Law, August 4, 1789