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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in November 2013. It is an excerpt from their course US Court Records  by C. Ann Staley, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


U.S. Constitution

First, let’s revisit Article III of the United States Constitution which provided for a separate federal judicial power:

Section 1. The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behavior, and shall, at stated times, receive for their services, a compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office.

Section 2. The judicial power shall extend to all cases, in law and equity, arising under this Constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made, or which shall be made, under their authority;―to all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls;--to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction;―to controversies to which the United States shall be a party;―to controversies between two or more states;―between a state and citizens of another state;--between citizens of different states;--between citizens of the same state claiming lands under grants of different states, and between a state, or the citizens thereof, and foreign states, citizens or subjects.

In all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be party, the Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction. In all the other cases before mentioned, the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction, both as to law and fact, with such exceptions, and under such regulations as the Congress shall make.

The trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury; and such trial shall be held in the state where the said crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any state, the trial shall be at such place or places as the Congress may by law have directed.

Section 3. Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.

Judicial Courts

As one of the first acts of Congress, the Judiciary Act of 1789 established the judicial courts in the United States. In all, there were 30 sections to this Judiciary act, and as such, was quite extensive in its coverage. It provided for:

  • a Supreme Court consisting of a chief justice and five associate justices and when they would meet;
  • the United States to be divided into 13 districts;
  • a District Court within each of the 13 districts with a District Judge. Each district had set dates and locations defined in which to conduct business;
  • eleven of the districts (excepting Maine and Kentucky) to be divided into three districts. The three districts were named the eastern, the middle and the southern circuit. It also established that two courts would be held annually (called Circuit Courts);
  • holding special sessions for criminal cases; and
  • the Supreme Court and the District Courts to appoint their own clerks and marshals.

With the circuit courts, circuit riding was common in the states and was appealing to Congress because it saved the money that a separate corps of judges would require; it exposed the Supreme Court justices to the state laws that they would interpret when sitting on the Supreme Court; and the justices whose were exposed to the legal practices in the nation.

The Judiciary Act of 1801, An Act to provide for the more convenient organization of the Courts of the United States, was passed in February 1801. It was soon repealed and in April of 1802 the Judiciary Act of 1802, an Act to amend the Judicial System of the United States, was passed.

With the exception of passing acts to create additional circuits, the judicial system, as setup, remained basically the same until the Evarts Act of 1891. This was an Act to establish circuit courts of appeals and to defined and regulate in certain cases the jurisdiction of the courts of the United States, and for other purposes, and was passed in March 1891. This act was important because it established courts of appeal which significantly reduced the case load of the Supreme Court.

With the Judicial Act of 1911, an Act to codify, revise, and amend the laws relating to the judiciary, Congress abolished the circuit courts and removed the need for circuit riding. This established a single type of trial court.

Federal Courts

Federal courts usually hear only cases in which the United States is a party (participant). This includes:

  • cases involving violations of the Constitution;
  • cases involving federal laws, property, or officials (will include tax evasion, postal records, liquor sales during prohibition, etc.);
  • cases involving maritime incidents;
  • cases involving foreign diplomats;
  • and some special cases (including bankruptcy cases, cases concerning incidents at sea, cases based on state laws that involve parties from different states, etc.).

U.S. Courts, September 24, 1789[1]

U.S. Courts 178911C.jpg

With westward expansion the number of U.S. district and circuit courts was adjusted and jurisdictional boundaries were redrawn as needed. By 1855, U.S. territorial possession increased and the number of states had grown to thirty-one. In 1855 there were forty-eight district courts, and with the creation of a separate judicial circuit for the state of California, the number of circuits increased to ten. The number of Supreme Court Justices reached nine.

U.S. Courts, 1855[2]

USCourts 185511C.jpg

Major reconstruction of the nation’s judicial system was necessary as the nation expanded in both geographic area and population.

By 1866, the nation’s population had grown to 36.5 million, there were 36 states, 54 districts, 46 district judgeships, 9 circuit courts and 9 Supreme Court justices.

As you can see, when setting the boundaries of the districts, Congress used the boundaries of the states.

U.S. Courts, 1993[3]

US Courts 199311C.jpg

1993 saw the nation’s population at 257.9 million, 50 states, 94 districts, 647 district judgeships, 13 circuit courts, 179 circuit judgeships, and 9 Supreme Court justices.


  1. Russell R. Wheeler and Cynthia Harrison, Creating the Federal Judicial System, 2nd edition (Washington, D.C.: Federal Judicial Center, 1994), 5.
  2. Russell R. Wheeler and Cynthia Harrison, Creating the Federal Judicial System, 2nd edition (Washington, D.C.: Federal Judicial Center, 1994), 15.
  3. Russell R. Wheeler and Cynthia Harrison, Creating the Federal Judicial System, 2nd edition (Washington, D.C.: Federal Judicial Center, 1994), 26.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US Court Records

offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at 

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

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