Connecticut senator gave U.S. its name and its courts

Contemporary Americans have a low opinion of Congress, given its partisanship and dearth of significant legislation. In contrast, no Congress was more productive in its first session, lasting a mere six months, than the first in 1789. And no piece of legislation was more important than Senate bill number one, whose main author was Sen. Oliver Ellsworth (1745-1807), one of Connecticut's first two Senators under the Constitution. The Judiciary Act of 1789, as Ellsworth's contribution came to be dubbed, is 230 years old this month and was critical to the new nation because Article III of the Constitution referencing the Supreme Court and federal court system was short on details.

A federal judiciary was critical. A lack of one in the previous form of government, the Articles of Confederation, led to its demise. The Articles provided for no national courts. Squabbles between states or citizens of different states couldn't be resolved. For example, Virginia and Maryland had disputes over their boundaries. Tough luck because each state court defended its own jurisdiction.

To be sure, both houses of the first Congress rushed to set up executive departments, such as Treasury, War and the Post Office, but these were slam-dunks because counterparts existed under the Articles of Confederation. One day after the Senate officially had a quorum and could conduct business in mid-April 1789, a committee of 10 Senators representing each of the states whose delegates had arrived in New York City, the nation's first capital, came together to carve out legislation for a national judiciary. Ellsworth was not only elected as chairman but assumed what might be called the de facto majority leader of the upper house.

Already by 1789 Ellsworth had a remarkable résumé. Born in Windsor and educated at Yale and Princeton, he served as the state attorney for Hartford County, volunteered in the military during the Revolution, was a state judge and member to one of the sessions of the Continental Congress. Elected a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Ellsworth became the author of the Connecticut Compromise, in which the convention agreed to give small and large states equal representation in the Senate.

After serving a full term in the Senate, he was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and in his later years served as a diplomat to France. So revered was he that in the 1796 presidential race, 11 electoral votes from three states were cast for him.

He was the father of nine children.

The dilemma for Ellsworth, a proponent of a strong federal government, was that there were congressmen who did not favor a judicial system in which state laws conflicting with national ones could be overturned. So, negotiation and bargaining over the 35 sections of the act took time and care, taking five months to complete after amendments by the House of Representatives. But it became law just before the first session of Congress came to an end in late September.

The text of the Judiciary Act became the foundation for the national court system to this day, with the delineation of circuit courts, what we call today appeals courts, and membership of the high court. The act also provided for the office of the Attorney General of the United States as well as for U. S. Attorneys General and Marshalls for each of the judicial districts.

But there's more to Ellsworth's legacy. He blossomed at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 when delegates were about to approve the name of the new nation as "National Government of United States," Ellsworth suggested instead "the United States of America." As for his place in history, he also had the distinction of having John F. Kennedy write an article on him for the Encyclopedia Britannica, JFK's only contribution to the prestigious reference publication.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University in Washington, D. C.

 

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