I wish you to consider whether it would not be useful, by a circular to the clerks of the federal courts, to call for a docket of the cases decided in the last twelvemonth, say from July 1. 1801. to July 1. 1802. to be laid before Congress. it will be satisfactory to them, & to all men to see how little is to be done by the federal judiciary, and will effectually crush the clamour still raised on the suppression of the new judges. I think it a proper document to be furnished annually, as it may enable us to make further simplifications of that corps.
To James Madison, August 30, 1802
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders seek documentation for their choices.
Before President Adams left office in 1801, the Federalist Congress greatly increased the number of judges in federal courts. This had the desired effect of saddling the incoming Jefferson administration with a politically hostile judiciary. The new President took whatever steps he could to reverse or curtail those appointments. His actions infuriated the Federalists.
In this letter to his Secretary of State, Jefferson asked his opinion about requiring court clerks to document how many cases each judge had decided in the previous year. He would present that report to the Congress, proving how little work the judges actually did. That should “crush the clamor” that still surrounded his efforts to reduce their number. In addition, if that information was tracked each year, it would provide the basis for reducing the federal judiciary even more.
Madison responded four days later, suggesting this documentation might better be required by the Congress. The Executive Branch had no funding to accomplish it. It also had no authority to require the court clerks to do it, and some might simply refuse. Nevertheless, he would proceed however the President wished.