Iowa remained a single federal district until July 20, 1882. During the single district period Congress created divisions within the district, the first being by Act of Congress dated February 26, 1853 which established the Northern, Central and Southern Divisions and provided that court be held in Dubuque, Iowa City, and Burlington. Later, on March 3, 1859, Congress reapportioned the district into Northern, Southern and Western divisions and designated Dubuque, Keokuk and Des Moines as places for holding court.

In 1869, a circuit court was established by an Act of Congress, and the district court jurisdiction was then limited to that granted district courts by the Judiciary Act of 1789 the circuit court was given the jurisdiction provided for in all circuit courts by the same act.4 A Central Division was added by act of June 30, 1870 which created four divisions with the designated court for the Central Division being Des Moines and the court site for the Western Division changed to Council Bluffs.

By the mid 1870's, Iowa federal court officials were becoming concerned with the court's inability to stay current with the steadily rising case load the district was experiencing. Disturbing also to court personnel were increasingly heavy travel expenses to the court, its juries, litigants and witnesses to often far distant seats of court; statistics showed these costs to be more substantial in amount than those in other federal districts of similar size.

Iowa federal District Judge J. M. Love, Circuit Judge George W. McCrary, and United States Supreme Court Justice Samuel F. Miller joined in requests to Congress for additional judicial force, citing the growth of commerce, increasing population and wealth and the extension of railroads within the state as major reasons for the increased volume of case filings, higher costs and the consequent urgency for an additional federal district. In the early 1880's, both the Senate and House judicial committees reported out favorably a bill to divide the state into two districts.

Under the bill, Judge Love was to become the judge of the Southern District composed of' roughly, the southern one-half of the state and a completely new court with new judge was proposed for the northern one-half.

The bill was passed by both houses as the Act of July 20, 1882, and the two new federal districts were established.
For the purpose of holding terms of court, Congress divided the two districts into Eastern, Central and Western Divisions each and designated the cities of Keokuk, Des Moines, and Council Bluffs, as seats of court for the Southern District, and Dubuque, Fort Dodge, and Sioux City those for the Northern District. The then judge of the district court became the district judge of the Southern District and a new judge was appointed for the Northern District. Sessions for the Circuit Court of the Northern District were to be held in Dubuque, and those for the Southern District in Des Moines.

During all of this period, the business of the district courts was handled singly by a local district judge with the business of circuit courts being handled by an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court sitting with the local district judge.

This system continued until 1869 as noted above, when United States Circuit judgeships were created. Following that time U.S. Supreme Court justices stayed in Washington, D.C. for most of the year and the work of the circuit courts was handled by the new circuit judges. This continued until 1891 when the Circuit Court of Appeals was organized under the so-called Evarts Act.
As it happened, the work of the circuit courts continued to increase to such an extent that at an early date it was provided that circuit court could be held singly by the local district judge. The records in Iowa indicate that indeed most of the federal court business in Iowa was handled by the district judge.

As to jurisdiction, that of the circuit courts included all civil business, both in law and in equity, and the district courts concluded all criminal matters. As it happened the jurisdiction of both courts was concurrent in many criminal matters although most of the civil business was handled by the local circuit judges.

Additional divisions were added to the Southern District following the Act of 1882 which had established seats of court at Keokuk, Des Moines and Council Bluffs. A Southern Division was added on June 1, 1900 with court to be held at Creston, a Davenport Division on April 28, 1904, with Davenport as the place of holding court, and finally, the Ottumwa Division on February 20, 1907 with the court to be held in that city. At present, court sites are at Des Moines, Davenport, and Council Bluffs, with branches at Creston, Ottumwa, and Keokuk pretermitted, (suspended).

1. From the vantage point of over two hundred years of history, the westward expansion of the nation appears as the only natural course of development for the United States. In 1787 however there were many who felt that not only was there no constitutional authority for such expansion, but that the new nation by maintaining its then boundaries had a far more secure and promising future than if it were geographically sprawling and consequently sparsely populated. See Daniel J. Boorstin, "A Dubious Destiny," The Americans, The National Experience, (New York: Random House,1965) pp.264-276.

2.  5 Stat. 789 _ 2 (1845). The Act relating to Kentucky was the Act of Congress, Sept.24, 1787 (The Judiciary Act of 1789), Ch. 20, in which the jurisdiction of the district court in Kentucky was to be that of the circuit courts as detailed in Section 11, Chapter 20, same Act.

3. "Northern Judicial District of Iowa," 30 Annals of Iowa (hereafter cited as Annals) pp.105-122 (1950), "Southern Judicial District of Iowa," ibid., pp.237-259.

4. Ibid. Basically, jurisdiction of the circuit courts included almost all civil business (law and equity) and the district courts almost all criminal business. Both courts had concurrent jurisdiction over criminal matters.

5. See Report accompanying H.R. 4155, Report No.251, 47th Congress, 1st Session.

6. H.R. 332.22 Stat. 173. See also History of Federal Courts, 40 Federal Rules Decisions202 (1967).

7. The story persists among Iowa federal court historians, perhaps apocryphal but intriguing, that in the 1880's an influential Iowa politician under the pressure of a demanding political obligation to a valued constituent, was in search of a prestigious federal office which he could fill by patronage appointment. A new federal judicial district would mean a new support staff, including a United States Marshal. That position would suit him fine, decided the politician's supporter and, so the story runs, to make that political plum available, pick it, and hand it over to satisfy the debt was no problem for an accomplished public servant of the "Gilded Age." That, concludes this version, is the origin of Iowa's Northern District.
8. Act of Mar. 3, 1891, 26 Stat. 826.

-Richard W. Peterson