3. Precedent and Interpretive Tradition


5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 299 (1803)

[Laird sued Stuart for breach of contract in one of the original federal circuit courts in Virginia, basing jurisdiction on diversity of citizenship. While the case was awaiting jury trial on damages, the so-called Midnight Justices Act was adopted by the outgoing Federalist Congress, which eliminated the old circuit courts and substituted for them a new set of circuit courts with mostly new judges, as well as specifically eliminating the duty of Supreme Court justices to sit on the circuit courts. Laird's case was then tried in December, 1801, by the new Fourth Circuit court, judgment was rendered for specified damages, execution was levied on specific property belonging to Stuart and another, and they posted bond guaranteeing delivery of the property for sale. Before the sale was to take place in 1802, the new Jeffersonian Congress repealed the Midnight Justices Act, abolishing the new circuit courts and reinstating the old ones, as a result of which Laird's case was transferred back to the old circuit court in which it had been filed. Stuart defaulted on the delivery and Laird sought recovery on the bond. Stuart defended on the ground that the Act of 1802, by transferring a case post-judgment to another court and by reinstating the requirement that Supreme Court justices sit on circuit, violated the constitution. Chief Justice Marshall, sitting on circuit, tried the action on the bond and ruled against Stuart on these defenses. On Stuart's appeal to the Supreme Court, Marshall recused himself because he had sat below. The Supreme Court, per Justice Patterson, sustained the judgment below without dissent. The passage in the very brief opinion relating to the constitutionality of the circuit-riding duties of the Supreme Court justices follows. An excellent short critique of the decision may be found in Currie, The Constitution in the Supreme Court: 1789 - 1888 at pp. 74-77 (1985).]

Patterson, J.:

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2. Another reason for reversal is, that the judges of the supreme court have no right to sit as circuit judges, not being appointed as such, or in other words, that they ought to have distinct commissions for that purpose. To this objection, which is of recent date, it is sufficient to observe, that practice and acquiescence under it for a period of several years, commencing with the organization of the judicial system, afford an irresistible answer, and have indeed fixed the construction. It is a contemporary interpretation of the most forcible nature. This practical exposition is too strong and obstinate to be shaken or controlled. Of course, the question is at rest, and ought not now to be disturbed.

Judgment affirmed.