When congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, the Federal court system was put into place. Congress had taken a vote in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and determined that Federal trial courts would not be created. However, James Madison proposed that Congress be allowed to determine whether or not Federal trial courts could be established. Madison’s proposal completely changed the U.S. judicial system, since it was added into the U.S. Constitution during its final revision.
Congress met for the first time in 1789. At that time, it resolved Madison’s proposal by determining that state trial courts would function in conjunction with Federal trial courts. Each state then established a Federal district court, whose job it was to function as a trial court in that state. The creation of those Federal trial courts was a brand new concept, which is still in use today.
Of course, populations in certain areas grew as the years past. Then it became necessary to divide some states into multiple districts and have multiple Federal courts to cover those districts. Between the fifty states, there are 89 current Federal court districts. Up until 1866, some Federal district courts covered limited criminal cases, as well as civil and equity cases. Then, land seizure, naturalization, bankruptcy and trade cases were added, as well as a few other case types. Non-capital criminal cases were added in 1815.
In 1789, three Federal circuits covered the entire country. By 1866 there were nine of them. They could handle all sorts of matters relating to Federal law, especially criminal court cases. They also performed some appellate functions for cases that began in certain district court systems. 1891 brought about the creation of circuit courts of appeals for district courts. The original circuit courts had the same boundaries as the circuit courts of appeals and their powers overlapped with district court powers, in some cases. The original circuit courts eventually became unnecessary and were eliminated in 1911.
Most Federal circuit and district court records from before 1950 are housed in the National Archives.