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Circuit Court allotment order for February term, 1801

When creating the federal judiciary, Congress aimed to keep Supreme Court justices in touch with the people. Each justice was to spend part of the year presiding––along with federal district judges––at circuit courts in several states. “Riding the circuit” by stagecoach, horseback, foot, or boat was difficult and time-consuming.

U.S. Supreme Court Collection, Supreme Court Museum and Archives

Circuit Court allotment order for February term, 1801 Circuit Court allotment order for February term, 1801 Circuit Court allotment order for February term, 1801

Redrawing Federal Court Circuits

Congress originally assigned Supreme Court justices to serve on circuit courts, which tried cases and heard appeals from district courts. Congress also determined circuit boundaries, redrawing them periodically. Prior to the Civil War, the president appointed a justice from each circuit. Five of the nine circuits were completely comprised of slave-holding states. After the war, the Judiciary Circuits Act of 1866 redrew circuit boundaries to weaken the influence of Southerners on the Supreme Court.

Congress determines the structure and authority of the federal court system. After the Civil War, Congress significantly revised the federal circuit courts and the number of Supreme Court justices.