Robed road show

Stephen Bates

In the early years of the Republic, few officials logged as many miles as Supreme Court justices. Federal law required justices to spend much of their time presiding over trials in different regions of the country, called “circuits.” Many of them considered “riding circuit” the worst part of the job, as retired justice Sandra Day O’Connor writes in Out of Order: Stories From the History of the Supreme Court (Random House).

In letters to his wife in the 1790s, Justice James Iredell recited a litany of discomforts and mishaps he suffered while traveling to trials in Georgia and the Carolinas. He was obliged to stay in a “very rascally house,” where “worthless young fellows [were] sitting up drinking gaming & cursing and swearing all night.” After that, he was robbed by a “Scoundrel.” Later, Iredell reported that he was in “much pain” after his horse threw him and his carriage ran over his leg.

Circuit riding proved too much for some justices. Six months after George Washington appointed him to the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas Johnson resigned. He would not, he told President Washington in 1793, spend half of each year away from his family, “on Roads at Taverns chiefly and often in Situations where the most moderate Desires are disappointed.”

Congress relieved justices of their circuit-riding duties in 1801 but reinstated them a year later. In the decades that followed, lawmakers repeatedly considered bills to abolish circuit riding once and for all, but none of them passed. Defenders of the status quo raised a host of arguments. To Representative James Bowlin of Missouri, circuit riding helped protect federalism: “Consolidate the Court in the metropolis, and the day is not far distant when the sovereign rights of the free States . . . will be swallowed up in this mighty vortex of power.” Senator George Badger of North Carolina suggested that the justices’ visibility helped legitimize their rulings: Citizens might disobey “unseen, final arbiters of justice, issuing their decrees as it were from a secret chamber.” Senator Abner Lacock of Pennsylvania predicted that through constant contact, shrewd Washington lawyers would learn to manipulate the men on the Court, who were “vain and susceptible to flattery.”

But as the Supreme Court’s docket grew, circuit riding became increasingly untenable. By the 1880s, the justices had more than a thousand cases pending, some of them three years old. In 1891, Congress created federal appellate courts. The justices could finally unpack their robes.


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