The Early History Of The United States District Court For The District Of New Jersey



By A. Ronald Nau, Former Chief Deputy


The original minutes of the United States District Court show that the District Court was organized at New Brunswick, N.J. on December 22, 1789. The District Court convened its first session on this date in accordance with Article 3, Section I of the United States Constitution. The Congress of the United States adopted the Judiciary Act of 1789 which provided that there should be a United States District Court in each of the thirteen states to be manned by a district judge. It is also provided that the states be divided into three circuits, Northern, Middle and Southern. The Justices of the Supreme Court were to allot themselves to the circuits and two of them were to sit in each district together with the district judge constituting themselves the Circuit Court of the district. Both the United States District Court and the United States Circuit Court of the district were given original jurisdiction for the only appellate jurisdiction was lodged in the United States Supreme Court for more than the first one hundred years. The Justices of the Supreme Court literally rode the circuits.

New Jersey was in the Middle Circuit, together with Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. Shortly thereafter, Maryland was grouped with Virginia as part of the Southern Circuit.

The minutes of the first session of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey and of the United States Circuit Court for the District have been assembled, and the minutes of the first session of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey on December 22, 1789 reveal that Judge David Brearly presided. Judge Brearly was Chief Judge of the Supreme Court of New Jersey from 1779 and resigned when appointed to the federal bench. The minutes of the Circuit Court of the District show that the first session was opened on April 2, 1790 at Trenton with Justice James C. Wilson of the United States Supreme Court and Judge Brearly presiding.

The District of New Jersey was first divided into East and West Jersey for District Court purposes, the Court sitting alternatively each year in Burlington for West Jersey and in New Brunswick for East Jersey. These terms continued from the day of the first session at New Brunswick until the commencing of court at both places was discontinued in 1844. Thereafter, the District Court sat for many years only in Trenton. Meanwhile the Circuit Court of the District sat only at Trenton from 1790 until 1911. Much of the important business, such as equity and patent litigation, was conducted in the Circuit Court.

During the nineteenth century the pressure of business in the Supreme Court increasingly prevented the individual Justices from riding the circuits, and the number of circuits and circuit judges to sit in the districts were increased from time to time.

In 1869 provision was made by Congress for separate circuit judges for each of the nine circuits then existing. They were clothed with the same power as the Justices of the Supreme Court to sit in respective Circuit Courts of the Districts.

In 1891 the United States Courts of Appeals were created. Each was to consist of three judges who were empowered to sit within their respective circuits with appellate jurisdiction to hear all appeals except those reserved to the United States Supreme Court itself.

By the Act of March 3, 1911, the Circuit Courts of the Districts were merged with the District Courts. The District Judges were assigned to hold the court of first instance in the Districts. The Supreme Court Justices and the Circuit Judges were constituted the judges of the Circuit Courts of Appeals. The Third Circuit was originally comprised of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. The Virgin Islands were added after their purchase from Denmark in 1917.

It was not until 1911 that an Act of Congress directed the New Jersey District Court to sit in Newark but then only when a judge so ordered. Two years later, in 1913, a statute directed that two terms of court be held in Newark--in April and November of each year--and that two terms in January and September be held in Trenton. Finally, in 1926, a term of Court was fixed by statute for Camden to commence in December of each year.

It should be noted that only one judge sat in the District Court from 1789 until 1905 when a second judgeship was created and Judge Joseph Cross joined Judge Lanning on the bench. The Court remained a two-court bench until 1919 when a third judgeship was added. In 1923, a fourth judgeship, of a temporary nature, was added to cope with the business growing out of the Eighteenth Amendment. The first judge of the District Court, David Brearly, occupied the bench but a year. Robert Morris, who followed him, occupied the bench until he died in 1817. Much of the latter part of his life he was ill and no business was transacted in the Court. However, in describing the Court of that day, it was said, that his absence caused no public disadvantage for there was scarcely any business in the District Court at that time. As time wore on, however, the business of the Court grew and one of the most prominent pieces of litigation tried in the eighteenth century in the Circuit Court of the District of New Jersey was the case of Goodyear v. Day, brought to contest the validity of Goodyear's patent on rubber. Mr. Goodyear had been experimenting with rubber for over a decade, had spent not only his own money but that of others and for some time was confined to a debtor's prison. In 1844, however, he hit upon the secret of vulcanizing India rubber and obtained a patent therefor. The product soon became very useful and important. Goodyear claimed that Day infringed his patent. The suit was defended on the theory of prior art rendering the patent void. Goodyear retained Mr. Daniel Webster, and Day--Mr. Joseph Choate. This combination brought into the same case two of the nation's most brilliant advocates. The case was tried in Trenton in March of 1852.

In those days even civil law cases attracted great public attention, probably substantially much more so than now. Trenton was stirred by the trial. The Federal Court was then held in the room of the New Jersey Court of Errors and Appeals in the State House. It was found to be too small to hold the great numbers desiring to attend, so the trial was moved to the County Courthouse.

Mr Webster at that time was Secretary of State in the cabinet of President Fillmore and the local papers reported that the streets surrounding the courthouse were thronged with people eager to see the two titans of the bar, especially Mr. Webster.

Mr. Webster was expected to be the nominee for the presidency at the convention of the Whig party the following June. It is recorded that political considerations were set aside and a committee of the legislature, the judiciary, members of the bar, and citizens generally was formed to tender Mr. Webster a dinner. Mr. Webster declined in a very gracious way, giving as his excuse the fact that he was in Trenton "only for the purpose of fulfilling a professional obligation of long standing" and that he was bound to return to Washington as soon as the duty would be performed. The importance of the professional obligation is attested by the size of Mr. Webster's fee, which is said to have been $10,000 for his appearance here, a rather substantial sum considering the times and the value of the dollar. Needless to say the patent was upheld.

The Court's first clerk was Jonathan Dayton, who, then only 27, had been the youngest delegate to the constitutional convention. He was a member of the New Jersey Council (Senate) in 1789, and in 1790 became a assemblyman and speaker of that house. He then served in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th United States Congresses, and was speaker of the 5th. He also served a term in the United States Senate, and later became active in a project for a canal around Ohio Fall, and as a result had Dayton, Ohio named after him. The first "attorney of the district " for the United States was Richard Stockton, son of "Stockton and Singer", and his first appearance was at the August term, 1790 (probably Judge Brearly's last attendance before his death). One Henry Guest had petitioned the court for relief from the payment of duties claimed by the collector of "the Eastern District of this State" on certain shoes and leather aboard the ship of Captain Edward Yard. Mr. Stockton responded to the order to show cause by saying that so far as the party sought relief from the customs duty on shoes and leather, the judge of the District Court had no jurisdiction. Judge Brearly dismissed the prayer for relief against payment of customs duty. That first litigated matter set the tone: the District Court is one of limited jurisdiction and matters outside it must be dismissed. It was so in the beginning, and has been so ever since. "Case Dismissed for Lack of Jurisdiction."