Established in 1816 as one of the original standing committees in the United States Senate, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary is one of the most influential committees in Congress. Its broad legislative jurisdiction has assured its primary role as a forum for the public discussion of social and constitutional issues. The Committee is also responsible for oversight of key activities of the executive branch, and is responsible for the initial stages of the confirmation process of all judicial nominations for the federal judiciary.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 did not provide for congressional committees when they drafted the Constitution of the United States. Nevertheless, a select committee of eight Senators, often suggested to be the precursor to the present-day Judiciary Committee, was appointed one day after the Senate first convened in 1789. The select committee was tasked with drafting what would become the Judiciary Act of 1789. This landmark Act established the present three-tiered hierarchy of the federal judiciary, and the Office of the Attorney General.
Temporary committees commonly convened in the House and Senate during the early years of Congress. The small size of Congress made it unnecessary to create permanent committees. In the Senate, ad hoc committees were comprised of three members, who dealt with routine issues, while five additional members were assigned to handle more significant issues. These committees met as needed to discuss issues at their desks in the Senate chamber.
The rapid growth of the nation after the turn of the 19th century and the increase in the number of members of Congress resulted in greater complexity in the federal lawmaking process. Elected officials in both the Senate and House recognized that the legislative business of the rapidly expanding country could no longer be addressed within the structure of select committees. In a resolution adopted on December 10, 1816, the Senate established the body's original standing committees, including the Committee on the Judiciary. The House Judiciary committee had been established three years earlier.
Early History and Jurisdiction Evolution
Senator Dudley Chase of Vermont was appointed as the first chairman of the Committee, and served during the Second Session of the 14th Congress. The initial responsibility of the Committee focused on measures that remain under the present-day Committee's jurisdiction – the courts, law enforcement, and judicial administration. Among the first issues addressed by Chairman Chase and the Judiciary panel were those of judicial nominations, judicial salaries, the creation of judicial districts, and legislation providing for the punishment of crimes within Indian territories. Questions concerning bankruptcy policy and State boundaries were early additions to the Committee's responsibilities.
Beginning with the 16th Congress (1819–1821), the Judiciary Committee extended it's jurisdiction to the admission of new States to the Union. The Committee, which consisted of two members from Free States and three from Slave States, engaged in fierce debate about the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Committee, under Chairman William Smith of South Carolina, voted 3–2 to report a bill that added a petition for statehood by Missouri as a Slave State to a petition by Maine to be admitted as a Free State. The bill, as amended was passed by the Senate, but was subsequently blocked by the House. Congress eventually passed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 in order to regulate slavery in the Western Territories, and to address the balance of power between Slave and non-Slave States. The Compromise of 1820 was the first time Congress prohibited slavery in public territory acquired after the adoption of the Constitution.
Jurisdiction over patents, trademarks, and copyright policy initially resided with the Committee until the Senate created the Committee on Patents in 1837. After the Civil War, the Committee's jurisdiction included restoration of former Confederate States to the Union. Immigration and naturalization measures were considered by the Committee until 1889, when the Committee on Immigration was established. Also, in 1889, the Committee reported what became the Sherman Antitrust Act, the first law passed by Congress to limit monopolies.
The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 was passed by Congress to consolidate and reduce the number of standing committees. With the passage of the Act, the Judiciary Committee's jurisdiction again included apportioning Representatives; patents, trademarks, copyright policy; and immigration and naturalization. The Act also removed from the Committee's jurisdiction proposals affecting executive branch reorganization, convict labor, and the American National Red Cross. The Committee Reform Amendments of 1977 eliminated the Judiciary Committee's jurisdiction over meetings of Congress, attendance of Members, and their acceptance of incompatible offices. Pursuant to the 1977 reform bill, the Judiciary Committee now shares jurisdiction over government information with the Government Affairs Committee.
The Civil War
A letter dated 1864 from Committee Chairman Lyman Trumbull to President Lincoln concerning recognition of credentials of Senators from Arkansas.Library of Congress.
The tenuous balance between Slave and Free States collapsed with the first shots of the Civil War, fired in April 1861 at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Judiciary Chairman Lyman Trumball of Illinois quickly helped secure the emergency war powers necessary for President Lincoln to fight the War.
In July 1861, the Senate expelled all Senators from southern states. In February 1862, the Judiciary Committee considered a resolution to expel Senator Jesse D. Bright from the northern state of Indiana for allegedly providing support to the Confederacy. Although the Committee voted against expulsion, the full Senate voted 32–14 in favor. Bright was the 14th and final senator expelled by the Senate during the Civil War, and to date the last ever to be expelled from the Senate.
On July 2, 1862, Congress enacted The Ironclad Test Oath of Office to preclude anyone who had sworn allegiance in an official capacity to the Confederacy from serving in the federal government. The application of the Ironclad Oath proved to be problematic in 1866, when the State of Tennessee elected David Patterson — a Tennessee judge during the Civil War — to the Senate. Patterson testified before the Judiciary Committee that he had sworn allegiance as a judge within the Confederacy solely for the purpose of protecting the Union loyalists residing in his judicial district. Patterson's testimony persuaded the Committee, and they voted to seat him. On the Senate floor, however, debate lasted until the early morning hours, when a compromise was reached to seat Patterson. The compromise included a resolution excluding him from taking the Ironclad Test Oath of Office.
Amendments to the Constitution
After the Civil War, the Judiciary Committee played a pivotal role in the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution), and all subsequent amendments, except the 16th Amendment (Income Tax) and the 27th Amendment (Compensation for Members of Congress).
|Consideration of Constitutional Amendments |
By the Judiciary Committee
|13th Amendment |
|Reported by the Committee, Feb. 1864 |
|14th Amendment |
|Bypassed Committee consideration |
|15th Amendment |
(Rights of Citizens to vote)
|Reported by the Committee, May 1869 |
|17th Amendment |
(Election of Senators)
|Reported by the Committee, May 1911 |
|18th Amendment (Prohibition of Liquor) |
|Reported by the Committee, June 1917 |
|19th Amendment |
|Hearings held |
|20th Amendment |
(Start of presidential terms)
|Reported by the Committee, Jan. 1932 |
|21st Amendment |
|Reported by the Committee, Jan.1933 |
|22nd Amendment (Presidential term limits) |
|Reported by the Committee, Feb. 1947 |
|23rd Amendment |
(Electoral College for DC)
|24th Amendment |
(Abolition of the Poll Tax)
|25th Amendment (Presidential succession) |
|Reported by the Committee, Feb. 1965 |
|26th Amendment |
|Reported by the Committee, Feb. 1971 |
In the First Session of the 38th
Congress, the Judiciary Committee drafted what would become the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery. In January 1864, Senator John Henderson of Missouri proposed a joint resolution for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude. Chairman Lyman Trumball introduced a similar proposal, which amounted to a resolution to amend the Constitution to prohibit slavery and servitude, and declare "that Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by proper legislation," in February 1864. It ultimately became the 13th Amendment, which was passed by Congress in January 1865 and ratified by the States in December 1865.
In January 1866, Judiciary Chairman Trumbull introduced two bills, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and a bill to expand the powers of the Freedman's Bureau. Both bills were referred to the Judiciary Committee and ordered reported, containing virtually identical language entitling all citizens "to have full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person." The Judiciary Committee's consideration of civil rights laws during Reconstruction were crucial in the drafting of the 14th Amendment, which applied the same constitutional rights to the States.
In January 1869, the Judiciary Committee reported a proposed Constitutional amendment that read: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote and hold office shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." One year later on February 3, 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified. The final language of the 15th Amendment was similar to the Judiciary Committee amendment, though it omitted the guarantee of the right to hold office.
In 1872, Susan B. Anthony petitioned Congress for remission of a fine imposed by the State of New York for attempting to vote and the matter was referred to the Judiciary Committee. On January 23, 1880, Anthony testified before the Committee along with other leaders of the women's suffrage movement. Forty more years would pass, however, before the Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage, on May 28, 1919, reported a resolution that was passed by Congress and ratified by the States as the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote.
Article II, section 2 of the Constitution requires the President of the United States to appoint the principal officers of the federal government "with the Advice and Consent of the Senate." During the first 50 years of the Committee's existence, Presidential nominations were referred by motion only, and only one out of three Supreme Court nominations were referred to the Judiciary Committee.
In 1868, the Senate began referring all nominations to the appropriate standing committees. Since then, the Judiciary Committee has played a central role in considering judicial and certain executive branch nominations. In addition to considering nominations for the Supreme Court, the Committee now considers nominations to positions in the Department of Justice, including the Attorney General and the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, nominations to the 13 United States courts of appeals and district courts, and nominations of United States attorneys.
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson's nomination of Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish nominee to the Supreme Court, embroiled the Judiciary Committee in a four-month debate. At the time of his nomination, it was not the practice of the Senate to hear testimony from Supreme Court nominees. Instead, the Committee conducted its own investigations, often in executive session and without record of their deliberations. Brandeis, nevertheless, influenced the outcome the Committee's deliberations by sending telephone and telegraph messages to the witnesses appearing on his behalf in an effort to rebut the staunch opposition to his nomination. The Committee reported his nomination, and in June 1916, the Senate confirmed his nomination by a vote of 47–22
In 1925, Harlan Stone became the first Supreme Court nominee to appear and testify before the Judiciary Committee. The Committee invited Stone to testify and provide answers to questions about his role as Attorney General in prosecuting the Teapot Dome Scandal, where oil executives bribed the Secretary of the Interior in exchange for leases of oil fields located on public lands. Stone testified before the Committee for five hours. Ultimately, the Committee reported his nomination, which was confirmed by the Senate.
In 1949, President Truman nominated former Senator Sherman Minton to the Supreme Court. As a Senator, Minton had supported President Roosevelt's infamous "court packing bill" that had been blocked by the Judiciary Committee. Current members requested testimony from Minton, but when he refused, the Committee withdrew its request.
Every nominee to the Supreme Court since President Eisenhower's 1955 nomination of John Harlan has testified before the Committee. The public testimony of Supreme Court nominees before the Senate Judiciary Committee has become the hallmark of the modern confirmation process.
A total of 40 Senators have served as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. The chairman schedules the Committee's agenda, calendar, and hearings.
On January 9, 1941, Senator Matthew Neely of West Virginia was appointed chairman of the Judiciary Committee, but he resigned from the Senate just three days later to become Governor of West Virginia. Senator Neely's resignation resulted in a "battle for the chairmanship" between two Senators with equal seniority. Senator Frederick Van Nuys of Indiana and Senator Patrick McCarran of Nevada had both served in the Senate and as members of the Judiciary Committee for exactly the same period of time.
The matter was turned over to the Democratic Steering Committee. The Steering Committee ruled in favor of Senator Van Nuys because he represented the State of Indiana which was admitted to the Union in 1816, long before Nevada entered the Union in 1864. Chairman Van Nuys served as the 32nd Chairman of the Judiciary Committee for the next three years until his death in 1944. Senator McCarran then became the 33rd Chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
In 1956, James Oliver Eastland of Mississippi, often known as "Big Jim," became chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He served for nearly 23 years, retiring from the Senate in 1978. Senator Eastland presided longer than any other chairman of the Judiciary Committee and was among the longest in continuous service of any Senate committee chair.
The Modern Civil Rights Era
Senator Eastland assumed the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee in 1956, in the midst of the modern era of civil rights legislation. When President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon pressured Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Senator Eastland failed to schedule hearings on any civil rights legislation referred to the Judiciary Committee. As a result, the Senate leadership bypassed the Committee process and scheduled debate of the bill on the Senate floor after it was passed by the House of Representatives.
The Senate ultimately passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, despite intense opposition on the floor. It was the first civil rights legislation enacted by Congress since Reconstruction, and preceded the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Present Day Committee
After nearly two centuries, the Committee on the Judiciary continues its consideration of many of the most substantial issues facing the nation. In its legislative and oversight roles, the Committee remains one of the most influential standing committees in the United States Senate.
Evans, C. Lawrence, The Encyclopedia of the United States. Senate Judiciary Committee, Congress, Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Kloss, William and Diane K Skvarla. United States Senate Catalogue of Fine Art. 107th Cong. 2nd sess., S. Doc. 107-11
Merskey, Roy M. and J. Myron Jacobstein. The Supreme Court of the United States: Hearings and Reports on Successful and Unsuccessful Nominations of Supreme Court Justices by the Senate Judiciary Committee, 1916-1975. William S. Hein & Co., 1977.
U.S. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary. History of the Committee on the Judiciary, 1816-1981. 99th Cong. 1st sess., S. Doc. 97-18.
U.S. Senate. Newsletter of the Office of the Secretary. Committee History Series, Judiciary Committee. Vol. 11, Issue 2., Spring 2007.
Did You Know? Presidents have used "recess appointments" to name 12 Supreme Court justices in U.S. history. Associate Justice Potter Stewart was the last recess appointment to the Supreme Court. President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Stewart on January 17, 1959, and in 1960, the Senate adopted a resolution expressing its objection to such appointments in the future.