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The Early Years of American Law

A New Criminal Court System

In observance of the Constitution, the nation's founders added a new federal criminal court system on top of the thirteen individual state judicial systems. The Constitution itself, however, said very little about criminal law. Criminal law is the set of rules that identifies behavior prohibited by a government to protect the health and safety of its citizens and the punishments for violations of these rules. Each state still had the most responsibility for crime and punishment in the United States, which has continued into the twenty-first century.

Thomas Jefferson holds up the Declaration of Independence in front of the Continental Congress. (The Library of Congress)

The Constitution called for a U.S. Supreme Court and gave Congress the authority to create other federal courts. The U.S. Congress, meeting in its first session in Philadelphia, passed the Judiciary Act in 1789 establishing the Supreme Court and various levels of federal courts, such as district and appellate (where district court decisions are appealed or reviewed) courts, and identified their jurisdictions (the geographic area over which a court has legal authority). The act also created the U.S. attorney, attorney general, and marshal offices.

Under authority of the new Constitution, Congress passed the Crimes Act of 1790. It was a general bill identifying seventeen crimes against the federal government. In addition to treason these federal crimes included murder within a federal installation such as a fort or on the high seas, forgery (the deceitful creation or altering) of federal documents, piracy, assault on a federal official, and perjury (intentionally making a false statement or lying during a court appearance while under oath) in a federal court. Criminal trials in federal courts were also to be before juries.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawThe Early Years of American Law - Colonial Freedom, Britain's Push For Greater Control, A New Start, A New Criminal Court System