Stuart v. Laird

Case Date: 02/26/2021

Stuart v. Laird, 5 U.S. 299 (1803)[1], was a case decided by the John Marshall-led U.S. Supreme Court, notably a week after the famous Marbury v. Madison. The case regards a circuit judge's judgment, after the judge's job had been abolished by the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801. Stuart's lawyer was Charles Lee, who also represented William Marbury. John Laird asked the Supreme Court to uphold the judge's ruling, while Stuart's team argued that (a) only the court that renders a judgment can enforce it and (b) the 1802 repeal of 1801's Judiciary Act was unconstitutional. Stuart lost on both accounts, and a dangerous show-down between the legislative and the judicial branches of the United States' government was averted. The case involved the Judiciary Act of 1801, which created a number of federal judgeships—the so-called "midnight judges" as the Act was passed by the lame-duck Federalists in their final days in office. The Act established new circuit court judges to hear intermediate appeals. As a result, Supreme Court justices would no longer have to "ride circuit" (which entailed substantial and often dangerous travel) to sit with district (trial) court judges to hear appeals throughout the nation. Yet soon after its passage, the statute was invalidated by the Repeal Act of March 8, 1802. Federalists attacked the Jeffersonian legislation, arguing that federal judges were appointed for life and therefore could not be constitutionally removed by the Repeal Act. The Judiciary Act of 1802 reinstated circuit courts but also resurrected the practice of circuit riding. Many thought the new 1802 Act unconstitutional, including new Chief Justice John Marshall. Marshall argued that justices should not have to preside over circuit courts unless they were commissioned as circuit court judges. He wrote the other justices, "I am not of opinion that we can under our present appointments hold circuit courts, but I presume a contrary opinion is held by the Court and, if so, I shall conform to it."[citation needed] Justice Samuel Chase agreed with Marshall, but the other justices did not. With Marshall not participating (though very much active behind the scenes), Justice William Paterson held for a unanimous Court that Congress did have the authority under the Constitution both to establish and abolish lower federal courts. Despite the Court sustaining the Judiciary Act of 1802, the issue of circuit riding was substantially lessened because the Act in effect made circuit riding optional: only one federal judge was required for a quorum on any circuit court. As a result, Supreme Court justices could rely on district court judges to hear intermediate appeals. This flexibility proved crucial to the demise of circuit riding. By the 1840s, the justices had all but stopped holding circuit courts. Scholars such as Bruce Ackerman have pointed to the Court's decision in Stuart v. Laird as part of the opposition Federalist Court's accommodation of the new Jeffersonian political regime.