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There are three branches of our federal government, designed to operate under a system of “checks and balances” – each limiting the power of the other. The legislative, executive and judicial arms of government all play a unique role.

The courts of the United States, both today and throughout history, have been instruments of constitutional government, helping to bind a diverse population together. Indeed, delivering justice in America has changed little since our Founding Fathers first developed a national judiciary in 1789.

In that year, Congress designed a blueprint consisting of two administratively separate systems, the federal and the state. Since then, our judiciary has continued to evolve as an independent—yet co-equal—partner to Congress and the President. Our founding fathers largely followed English precedents when making our laws and our judicial system. They understood the importance of having an independent Judiciary – a distinct and separate branch of the federal government.


Because the original Thirteen Colonies had followed English legal precedent, they already had their own comprehensive court system in place. However, in the years following the end of the American Revolution, lawmakers such as George Washington and James Madison began to turn away from English Common Law and sought a distinctly American legal program. The following three milestones helped determine its shape:

  • Philadelphia’s Constitutional Convention of 1787
  • The United States Constitution, ratified in 1788
  • The Judiciary Act of 1789

The Constitutional Convention included delegates who argued intensely how to frame the proposed U.S. Constitution, which would form the backdrop for the new republic. Lawmakers also hoped to structure a national judiciary, but factional fighting created fierce debate.

Two distinct blocs opposed each other. The first, the Federalists, favored a strong national government. They were concerned that the rights of 13 separate states might supersede a single national standard.

The second bloc, the Antifederalists, supported states’ rights. They were fearful that a dominant federal judiciary would restrict the jurisdiction of individual states and local communities. Unhappy with a proposed three-tier federal judiciary by the Federalists, they offered an alternative: state courts serving as trial and appellate courts, with a federal supreme court to hear final appeals.

The United States Constitution, the highest law of the land, did not settle all the legal questions discussed at the Convention. In fact, it presented only a brief sketch of the new nation’s court system. However, it did establish a unique American institution—the Supreme Court or court of last resort.

Each Supreme Court Justice was assigned to one of these three circuits, and was required to periodically go to a city in each state in the circuit and hold a circuit court in combination with the district judge of that state.  “Circuit riding” by judges lasted for 101 years, and judges often spent more time on the circuit than on their district court duties.

The Judiciary Act was a milestone in the history of the American court system. It established our decentralized federal judiciary and helped unite a geographically dispersed nation with a consistent system of federal law.

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