Repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801, January 22, 1802
President Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, refused to accept his predecessor’s Federalist lifetime appointments. The new Democratic-Republican majority in Congress, proponents of states’ rights, repealed the 1801 law––thereby abolishing the new courts and judgeships, restoring the Supreme Court’s circuit duties, and returning jurisdiction to state courts. Then they instituted their own court circuit reorganization with the Judiciary Act of 1802.
Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration
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 When Democratic-Republicans gained a majority in Congress the following year, they repealed the 1801 act and abolished the new judgeships.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.