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Judiciary Act of 1789, Section 25

Last Updated: 2006

After the first official& U.S. Congress convened and quickly enacted legislation on the structure of the judicial branch, President George Washington signed the Judiciary Act of 1789, or “An Act to establish the Judicial Courts of the United States,” into law on September 24, 1789. The federal statute elaborated on the limited language in the Constitution regarding the Supreme Court, outlined its jurisdiction, and enacted a system of lower federal courts. Within the thirty-five sections of the act was a hierarchy of federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court, with its six justices, was at the top of this hierarchy. A two-tiered structure of inferior courts, with district courts in each state and circuit courts in each of three regional districts, composed the base of the federal judicial configuration. The Judiciary Act enabled review by the Supreme Court of lower federal court opinions and had provisions for review of state court decisions as well.

Under Section 25, the Court had jurisdiction over state supreme court decisions that passed on the validity of federal laws. This section of the Judiciary Act of 1789 provided a source of early controversy in constitutional politics. After establishing its right to judicial review in the landmark case Marbury v. Madison (1803), the Court used many of its initial decisions to define its authority and jurisdiction. Section 25 came into question in the Supreme Court case Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee (1816). The state of Virginia refused to uphold a Marshall Court decision that reversed an earlier state ruling that dealt with the rights of a British subject under the Jay Treaty, which was ratified in 1975 and provided for the withdrawal of British troops from the American West and reparations for Loyalists’ losses. While Virginia believed it to be bound by the Constitution, it also held to the notion that its interpretations of federal law were controlling in such matters. In Martin, Justice Joseph Story spoke for a unanimous Court when he reasserted the Court’s jurisdiction over state court rulings contained in Section 25 of the Judiciary Act. Using the Constitution as his reasoning for upholding the statute, he stated that “the 25th section of the judiciary act . . . is supported by the letter and spirit of the constitution.” Upheld by the Court in Martin, Section 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 thus established the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court over state courts on issues of federal law that is still maintained today.

SEE ALSO: Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee


Lawrence Baum, The Supreme Court, 8th ed. (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2003); Dwight F. Henderson, Courts for a New Nation (Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1971); David M. O’Brien, Constitutional Law and Politics, Vol. 1: Struggles for Power and Governmental Accountability (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003); and Bernard Schwartz, A History of the Supreme Court (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).