Who or what were John Adams's Midnight Judges?

The "Midnight Judges" were 42 Federalist justices of the peace President John Adams appointed immediately before his administration ended and Thomas Jefferson's began. They were appointed because Adams realized the Federalist party was losing power and control in government to the Democratic-Republicans (who also called themselves "anti-Federalists,").

The Midnight Judges were symbolically important, but had little judicial power and only served five-year terms. They were appointed as a matter of patronage (a reward to a loyal political supporter) under the Organic Act of 1801, and were not part of the court-packing scheme devised under the Judiciary Act of 1801, that allowed Adams and the Federalist-dominated Congress to appoint a number of judges to Article III constitutional courts. Those judges represented a real problem for incoming President Jefferson, because they received lifetime commissions and would have a political and ideological impact on the US government for decades to come.

Several of these Midnight Judges played an important role in a landmark US Supreme Court case, Marbury v. Madison, (1803).


The "Midnight Judges" were Federalist justices of the peace that Adams appointed in the last hours of his presidency. They were nominated on March 2, and confirmed by the Senate on March 3, the day before Adams left office. John Marshall stayed up late into the night recording and sealing the commissions, but didn't have time to deliver them before the next administration took office.

Although some people believe John Marshall was one of the midnight judges, in reality, Marshall was legitimately nominated to the position of Chief Justice due to Oliver Ellsworth's failing health. Marshall was sworn in in February 1801, but agreed to continue acting as Adams' Secretary of State until the administration left office.

The second piece of legislation, the Organic Act of 1801 (aka "An Act Concerning the District of Columbia"), which passed on February 27, 1801, is more directly relevant to the Marbury v. Madison case. In The Organic Act, Congress formally incorporated landed ceded to the federal government by Virginia and Maryland into the District of Columbia, dividing the territory into two "cities": Alexandria, which operated under Virginia law; and Georgetown, which operated under Maryland law. The Act allowed Adams to nominate an unspecified number of justices, as he saw fit. Adams used the opportunity to place 42 Federalist party members into justice of the peace positions to serve the District of Columbia.

The new President, Thomas Jefferson, destroyed 12 of the 42 Federalist commissions, and appointed members of his Democratic-Republican party to another five positions. Four of the men whose commissions were discarded later petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus (an order compelling an official to do something) forcing the new Secretary of State, James Madison, to deliver their commissions so they could take office.

The resulting case, Marbury v. Madison, (1803) is a landmark decision that affirmed the doctrine of judicial review and elevated the status of the Judicial branch in the US government.

Adams was also accused of court-packing because the Judiciary Act of 1801, passed several weeks earlier, expanded the federal judiciary, adding sixteen new Circuit judges and five new District judges, all of whom were also Federalists. The new Democratic-Republican controlled Congress quickly repealed the Act, eliminating all the new judgeships and reverting the statutes to the Judicial Act of 1789 until they could pass a law more favorable to their party.

The new legislation, the Judiciary Act of 1802, reduced the number of Supreme Court Terms from two per year to one per year, in February. Whether intentionally or by happenstance, the new law completely eliminated the Supreme Court Term for 1802, pushing the Marbury case from the June 1802 docket to February 1803. By the time the Marshall Court considered the question of Marbury's and his fellow petitioners' commissions, Jefferson had been in office nearly two years.

For more information on Marbury v. Madison, see Related Questions, below.