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“An Overworked Supreme Court,” chromolithograph by Joseph F. Keppler, Puck, December 9, 1885

The rapid development of railroads and industry prompted a flood of interstate litigation in federal courts. The Supreme Court fell several years behind in its schedule as its appellate caseload mounted. In the 1880s Congress considered several proposals to lighten the court’s burden but could not reach agreement on any of them.

Office of the Curator, United States Supreme Court

An Overworked Supreme Court

Congress Creates the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

As the nation expanded after the Civil War, increasing interstate litigation threatened to overwhelm the Supreme Court. To reduce the court’s caseload, Congress in 1891 established circuit courts of appeals, which could hear most cases that previously would have gone to the Supreme Court. For the first time, the highest court had some freedom to select the cases and issues it would decide. It was Congress’s most significant innovation in the federal court system since the Judiciary Act of 1789.

What is the plain, imperative duty of Congress . . . ? It is to provide adequate judicial machinery for the prompt transaction of the business of the Federal courts. If this is not done, these courts, instead of . . . affording speedy and impartial justice . . . will become . . . instruments of oppression

Senator Joseph Dolph of Oregon, “Doubts About Relief Provided by Appeals Courts,” Speech to the U.S. Senate, September 19, 1890