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U.S. Marshals Service

History - Broad Range of Authority

The offices of U.S. Marshals and Deputy Marshal were created by the first Congress in the Judiciary Act of 1789, the same legislation that established the Federal judicial system. The Marshals were given extensive authority to support the federal courts within their judicial districts and to carry out all lawful orders issued by judges, Congress, or the president.

As a balance to this broad grant of authority, Congress imposed a time limit on the tenure of Marshals, the only office created by the Judiciary Act with an automatic expiration. Marshals were limited to four-year, renewable terms, serving at the pleasure of the president.

Until the mid-20th century, the Marshals hired their own Deputies, often firing the Deputies who had worked for the previous Marshal. Thus, the limitation on the Marshal's term of office frequently extended to the Deputies as well.

Their primary function was to support the federal courts. The Marshals and their Deputies served the subpoenas, summonses, writs, warrants and other process issued by the courts, made all the arrests and handled all the prisoners. They also disbursed the money. The Marshals paid the fees and expenses of the court clerks, U.S. Attorneys, jurors and witnesses. They rented the courtrooms and jail space and hired the bailiffs, criers, and janitors. In effect, they ensured that the courts functioned smoothly.

Inspired by the rich history of the Marshals Service, Donald V. Crowley created the painting "Justice" as a tribute to the U.S. Marshals Service's 200 anniversary in 1989. © 1989 The Greenwich Workshop, Inc., Trumbell, CT 06611











The Marshals took care of the details, thereby freeing the judges and attorneys to concentrate on the cases before them. They made sure the water pitchers were filled, the prisoners were present, the jurors were available and the witnesses were on time.

But this was only a part of what the Marshals did. When George Washington set up his first administration and the first Congress began passing laws, both quickly discovered an inconvenient gap in the Constitutional design of the government.  It had no provision for a regional administrative structure stretching throughout the country . Both the Congress and the Executive were housed at the national capital.

No agency was established or designated to represent the federal government's interests at the local level. The need for a regional organization  quickly became apparent. Congress and the President solved part of the problem by creating specialized agencies, such as customs and revenue collectors, to levy the tariffs and taxes. Yet, there were numerous other jobs that needed to be done. The only officers available to do them were the U.S. Marshals and their deputies. 

General George Washington sits astride his horse as snow falls around him.  Passing before him is a ragtag procession of dispirited soldiers headed for Valley Forge.  Among them are three future U.S. Marshals.

"The March to Valley Forge" by William B.T. Trego
This painting was completed in 1883 for a contest for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Thus, the Marshals also provided local representation for the Federal government within their districts.  They took the national census every 10 years through 1870. They distributed presidential proclamations, collected a variety of statistical information on commerce and manufacturing, supplied the names of government employees for the national register and preformed other routine tasks needed for the central government to function effectively.

Over the past 200 years, Congress and the president also called on the Marshals to carry out unusual or extraordinary missions such as; registering enemy aliens in time of war, capturing fugitive slaves, sealing the American border against armed expeditions aimed at foreign countries and swapping spies with the Soviet Union.

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