The existence of a separate federal judiciary had been controversial during the debates over the ratification of the Constitution. Anti-Federalists had denounced the judicial power as a potential instrument of national tyranny. Indeed, of the ten amendments that eventually became the Bill of Rights, five (the fourth through the eighth) dealt primarily with judicial proceedings. Even after ratification, some opponents of a strong judiciary urged that the federal court system be limited to a Supreme Court and perhaps local admiralty judges. The Congress, however, decided to establish a system of federal trial courts with broader jurisdiction, thereby creating an arm for enforcement of national laws within each state.
The Senate Journal records that Richard Henry Lee (AA-VA) reported the judiciary bill out of committee on June 12, 1789; Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut was its chief author. The bill passed the Senate 14–6 on July 17, 1789, and the House of Representatives then debated the bill in July and August 1789. The House passed an amended bill 37–16 on September 17, 1789. The Senate struck four of the House amendments and approved the remaining provisions on September 19, 1789. The House passed the Senate's final version of the bill on September 21, 1789.
President George Washington signed the Judiciary Act of 1789 into law on September 24, 1789 and promptly submitted his nominations to fill the offices created by the Act. Among the nominees were John Jay for Chief Justice of the United States; John Rutledge, William Cushing, Robert H. Harrison, James Wilson, and John Blair Jr. as Associate Justices; Edmund Randolph for Attorney General; and myriad district judges, United States Attorneys, and United States Marshals for Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia. Among Washington's initial six Supreme Court nominations, all accepted and were confirmed with the exception of Robert Harrison, who declined to serve. As a result of Harrison's refusal, Washington later nominated James Iredell, who would join the Court in 1790, thereby completing the Court at its legally prescribed "full strength" of six members for the first time, and fulfilling the requirements of the 1789 Act.
The Act set the number of Supreme Court justices at six: one Chief Justice and five Associate Justices. The Supreme Court was given exclusive original jurisdiction over all civil actions between states, or between a state and the United States, as well as over all suits and proceedings brought against ambassadors and other diplomatic personnel; and original, but not exclusive, jurisdiction over all other cases in which a state was a party and any cases brought by an ambassador. The Court was given appellate jurisdiction over decisions of the federal circuit courts as well as decisions by state courts holding invalid any statute or treaty of the United States; or holding valid any state law or practice that was challenged as being inconsistent with the federal constitution, treaties, or laws; or rejecting any claim made by a party under a provision of the federal constitution, treaties, or laws.
SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the supreme court of the United States shall consist of a chief justice and five associate justices, any four of whom shall be a quorum, and shall hold annually at the seat of government two sessions, the one commencing the first Monday of February, and the other the first Monday of August.