The Supreme Court in 1888 was in crisis. Its overall structure and responsibilities, created a century earlier by the Judiciary Act of 1789, were no longer adequate or appropriate. The Court had no control over its own docket - at the beginning of the 1888 term, there were 1,563 cases pending - and the justices’ responsibilities, which included circuit riding, were impossible to meet. Shaped as it was by a law almost as old as the country itself, the Supreme Court in 1888 - and the federal judicial system as a whole - would be barely recognizable to many today.
This chapter - which appears in IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law’s compilation Then & Now: Stories of Law and Progress - examines the subsequent ways in which Congress (often at the urging of the justices) and the Supreme Court itself sought to lessen its workload and define the limits of its jurisdiction. Through such factors as the creation of intermediate appellate courts, the passage of the Evarts Act in 1891 and the Judges’ Bill in 1925, and the Court’s own early refusal to engage in error correction, the Supreme Court’s jurisdictional scope narrowed, and the Court evolved into the institution we know today. This “progressive contraction of jurisdiction” has led to historically low dockets. In October Term 2011, the Supreme Court decided a historic low of only 65 cases on the merits.
Shapiro, Carolyn, "A "Progressive Contraction of Jurisdiction": The Making of the Modern Supreme Court" (2013). 125th Anniversary Materials. 3.