First Assembly of U.S. Supreme Court
On February 1, 1790, the U.S. Supreme Court assembled for the first time in New York City, then the nation's capital. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Court but left its specific duties vague, so the justices spent their first session organizing the Court and didn't hear their first case until the following year.
One duty that the Judiciary Act of 1789 had established, however, was that the six-member Court "ride circuit" within the 13 districts. This demanded that the justices travel to each district twice a year to hold court, which is how "circuit courts" got their name. In the frontier environment, where travel was a challenge, the practice could prove hazardous and even deadly.
President George Washington appointed the first Court of Chief Justice John Jay and five associate justices, including James Iredell, who died in 1799, primarily from the rigors of riding circuit.
From its inception, the number of justices on the Supreme Court changed six times, including the addition of a tenth circuit justice in California in 1863, Stephen Field. While riding circuit in Lathrop in 1889, Field survived an assassination attempt by fellow former California Chief Justice David Terry. (See In re Neagle
, 135 U.S. 1 (1890).)
The Judiciary Act of 1869 established intermediary Circuit Courts to reduce the burden on justices riding circuit, and the practice was formally abolished by the Judicial Code of 1911.
Recently the Minnesota Law Review championed a return of circuit riding since transcontinental travel is now considerably less dangerous and offers many perceived benefits, such as exposing the justices to a wider array of legal issues and the laws of various states.