Ernest Clifton Rankin Historical Context

        Ernest Clifton Rankin worked as an examiner for the Department of Justice from 1910-1933. His job as an examiner required him to investigate the different federal courts throughout the United States. Therefore, in order to properly understand the nature of Rankin’s work as an examiner, it is necessary to also understand the history of the federal courts.

       The Judicial Branch of the United States government was founded in 1789 by the third article of the Constitution, which reads, “The Judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”1 Because of the Constitution’s rather vague language and the fact that the only court that was actually established was the Supreme Court, Congress then passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which set up a judiciary system made of a Supreme Court with a chief justice and five associate justices, and two systems of lower-courts: the district courts and the circuit courts.2

       District courts have original jurisdiction; by law, federal criminal and civil cases must be heard in them first.3 There were originally thirteen districts courts: one for each of the eleven states that were a part of the United States in 1789 and two extra districts for the future states of Maine and Kentucky, which were then part of Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively.4 Each district was presided over by a single judge.5 As more states began to be added, the number of districts also increased. Each state has at least one district court, and twenty-four states have more than one; North Carolina, for instance, has Western, Middle, and Eastern District courts.6 It has been observed that “Other than consistently honoring state lines, the organization of the district courts seems to follow no rational plan.”7 In some ways, this is true, though geography and population play a large role in determining how many districts a state needs. A large but sparsely populated state like Arizona or Alaska will have only one district, while smaller but more densely populated states such as Florida and Illinois each have three districts.8

        The Judiciary Act of 1789 also established the circuit courts, which served as both trial and appellate courts.9 The circuit courts transcended state lines; in 1789, there were three circuit courts –Southern, Middle, and Eastern.10 Each of these circuits was headed by two Supreme Court justices and a district judge, which meant that circuit courts had an element of “circuit riding,” which may well be where the phrase comes from.11 As more states joined the Union, the circuit courts were forced to expand; the Act of 1801 established six circuit courts and numbered them for the first time.12 However, that act was repealed and the Act of 1802 was passed by Congress. This act also expanded the number of circuit courts to six, but it did several other things, most importantly reaffirming the circuit riding nature of the circuit courts.13 However, the Act of 1802 also said that a circuit court could be held by only one district judge, which created a real problem, since the circuit courts were the appellate courts, while the district courts held original jurisdiction.14 Under the Act of 1802, the same judge could both judge a case and hear its appeal, which could greatly harm the administration of justice. This problem was not fully addressed until 1869, when Congress created the office of circuit court judge.15 This eliminated the possibility of the conflict of justice that occurred under the old system of circuit courts. In addition, the new circuit court judges were each given authority over a certain geographic area, eliminating the circuit riding.16 The Act of 1869 was the final major legislative act concerning the circuit courts until 1911, when they were abolished and their place completely taken by the Circuit Courts of Appeals.17 The purpose of abolishing the circuit courts was to institute a “judicial system with a single type of trial court” and to eliminate the “inefficiencies associated with administering two types of court that were often presided over by the same judge.”18

        The Circuit Courts of Appeals were established by the Evarts Act of 1891.19 The appellate courts hear only appeals; they have no original jurisdiction at all. They hear the vast majority of appeals in the United States, and originally served to greatly lighten the load of appeals heard by the Supreme Court. They took over the appellate role of the circuit courts when they were established in 1891.20 Originally, the Circuit Courts of Appeals were composed of a circuit judge, a circuit court of appeals judge, a district judge, and a Supreme Court justice.21 The Circuit Courts of Appeals covered the same geographic areas that the circuit courts did and had a very similar name, which confused many people until the abolishment of the circuit courts in 1911.22 There are currently thirteen circuit courts of appeals, and they too appear to follow no logical order in terms of their organization. The 1st circuit, for instance, is made up of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico.23

        Besides judges, there are several other kinds of employees who work in the federal courts. Deputy and law clerks maintain records of the cases and do routine paperwork, as well as review petitions and motions, listen to a judge’s views on a case, and sometimes help write the opinion that accompanies a judge’s decision.24 United States marshals are charged with ensuring safety in the courtroom, delivering legal orders and subpoenas to witnesses, making arrests, guarding and transporting prisoners, and protecting witnesses.25 The United States magistrates, who replaced the office of United States commissioner, are allowed to conduct civil trials if both parties consent and can thus lighten the load of the appellate judges.26 Finally, the United States attorneys, who are a part of the Department of Justice and are appointed by the President with Senate confirmation, are responsible for prosecuting defendants in district courts and for defending the United States when it is sued in federal court.27

        With the background history of the United States federal courts in hand, we can now turn to an examination of the Department of Justice and the specific role of examiners such as Ernest Rankin. The Department of Justice is part of the Executive branch of the government and is under the authority of the Attorney General.28 It was established in 1870 by an act of Congress and took over the “supervisory powers now exercised by the Secretary of the Interior over the accounts of district attorneys, marshals, clerks, and other officers of the courts of the United States.”29 Until 1939, the Department of Justice was primarily the “principal administrative agency for the judiciary, compiling statistics on the business of the federal courts, procuring office supplies, and developing more uniform standards of personnel management.”30 Essentially, the Department of Justice was the administrative center for the Judicial branch of the federal government.

         Ernest Rankin’s role in the Department of Justice was primarily in the keeping of the financial accounts of the federal court employees. He worked for several different divisions of the Department of Justice, starting with the Bureau of Investigation under the direction of Stanley W. Finch and Alexander Bruce Bielaski from 1911-1918.31 From 1920-23, Rankin worked under the supervision of J. Harris for the Division of Accounts, and from 1924-1933, he reported to the Office of the General Agent under the direction of Harris and J. W. Gardner.32 The role that he performed for the Department of Justice is similar to that of the modern-day Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates allegations of misconduct on the part of U. S. Attorneys, Department of Justice investigators, and law enforcement personnel.33 The Department of Justice department that most resembles the work that Rankin did, however, is the Office of the Inspector General. The Inspector General’s office is divided into five sub-categories: the Audit Division, the Investigations Division, the Evaluation and Inspections Division, the Office of Oversight and Review, and the Management and Planning Division.34 The Audit Division and the Investigations Division are the most similar to Rankin’s work; they examine financial records and investigate allegations of fraud and other misconduct within the Department of Justice.35

        Ernest Rankin’s job as an examiner was, officially, “The periodic examination of offices of court officials, as directed by the Department from time to time, also any special investigations so directed concerning such officials, appertain to all judicial districts in the United States, and such examination assignments ordinarily embrace the offices of clerks United States district court and Circuit Court of Appeals, the United States marshal, the United States attorney, the principal United States commissioners, and principal referees in bankruptcy in respective districts.”36 The official description of the responsibilities of an examiner also includes the six primary duties of examiners. First, an examiner had to observe the court officials and determine any weaknesses; if necessary, the examiner was also to investigate an “instance of private and official misconduct.”37 Second, an examiner was to determine the overall condition and accuracy of a court’s records and suggest changes if mistakes were found; along with this duty was the third one, which stated that an examiner had to audit the financial records “to such an extent as deemed necessary.”38 Fourth, examiners had to discern whether or not an expense charged to the government was legal and if it merited reimbursement (some expenses like tipping a waiter in a non-tipping state were not reimbursed).39 Fifth, the examiner was to review any bankruptcy proceedings to ensure that there were no irregularities.40 Finally, he was to perform miscellaneous duties such as supervising any junior examiners and preparing reports, exhibits, and official letters.41

        Rankin himself gave a much more concise description of the nature of his work, writing, “While making examinations of court offices in the various districts, employe [sic] supervises, in a general way, the work of the employee in said offices by calling their attention to the instructions of the Department, whenever he finds that their books, records, and accounts are not being kept.”42 The focus of Rankin’s work seems to have been on pointing out the weaknesses in a court’s methods of record keeping and helping the employees learn how to improve in that area. However, Rankin was a supervising examiner, which meant that in addition to his duties in examining the financial records and professional behavior of the court officials, he was also responsible for supervising and, if necessary, training the examiners who were placed under him.43 Supervising examiners were themselves supervised; as Rankin writes, “Employe [sic] is supervised and his work is revised by the office of the General Agent [the head of the examiners], weekly reports are required, and in addition, summary reports on each office are submitted at the close of each examination, which reports are carefully reviewed.”44 In keeping with the examiner’s role as inspector of the federal courts’ administrative functions, it was only proper that the men conducting the examinations would themselves be examined.

        The examiners of the Department of Justice played an important, if rather mundane, role in the administration of justice in the United States federal courts. They spent long hours inspecting financial records, but with the aim of ensuring that embezzlement was not being committed by court officials, that bribes were not being issued, and that citizens who had dealings with the federal courts were not being over-charged by them. In addition, the examiners served as a check on the behavior of court officials; the officials knew that eventually their particular district would be examined, that their misconduct would most likely be found out, and that they would be subject to disciplinary action. While the examiners certainly did make mistakes and did not catch every unethical court official, they did work very hard to try to ensure that justice prevailed in the federal courts.  


1 U. S. Constitution, art. 3, sec.1.

2 Robert A. Carp and Ronald Stidham. The Federal Courts. (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1985), 2-3.

3Carp and Stidham, 37.

4 Ibid, 23-4.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid, 18.

7 Ibid, 25.

8 Ibid, 18.

9 Federal Judiciary History, “The Judicial Code of 1911 and the Abolition of the U. S. Circuit Courts,” (<>).

10 Erwin C. Surrency. History of the Federal Courts. (New York: Oceana Press, 1987), 36.

11 Carp and Stidham, 15.

12 Surrency, 36.

13 Carp and Stidham, 16.

14 Ibid.

15 Surrency, 39

16 Ibid, 35.

17 Carp and Stidham, 17.

18 Federal Judiciary History, “The Judicial Code of 1911 and the Abolition of the U. S. Circuit Courts.”

19 Carp and Stidham, 17.

20 Federal Judiciary History, “The Judicial Code of 1911 and the Abolition of the U. S. Circuit Couts.”

21 Carp and Stidham, 17.

22 Surrency, 39.

23 Carp and Stidham, 18.

24 Ibid, 81, 83.

25 Ibid 83.

26 Ibid, 77.

27 Ibid, 84-5.

28 Department of Justice, Organization Chart, (

29 Federal Judiciary History, “Executive Branch Administration of the Federal Judiciary,”

30 Ibid.
U. S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, “FBI History: Origins 1908-1910,”
( )

; “FBI History: Early Days 1910-1921,”  ( ), and Ernest Clifton Rankin, Letters and Reports, (D. Hiden Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina at Asheville).

32 Rankin.

33 U. S. Department of Justice, Office of Professional Responsibility, (

34 U. S. Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, ( ).

35 Ibid.

36 Rankin, Classification Board Form No. 14.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid.

42 Ibid, Department of Justice Questionnaire.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid.



Carp, Robert A., and Ronald Stidham. The Federal Courts. Washington, D. C.: Congressional

            Quarterly, 1985.

Federal Judiciary History. “Executive Branch Administration of the Federal Judiciary.”


---. “The Judicial Code of 1911 and the Abolition of the U.S. Circuit Courts.”


Rankin, Ernest Clifton. Letters and Reports. D. Hiden Ramsey Library, University of North

            Carolina at Asheville.

Surrency, Edwin C. History of the Federal Courts. New York: Oceana Press, 1987.

U.S. Department of Justice. Federal Bureau of Investigation: “FBI History: Early Days 1910-

            1921. <>.

---. Federal Bureau of Investigation. “FBI History: Origins 1908-1910.”


---.Introduction to the Office of Inspector General. <>.

---. Office of Professional Responsibility. <>.

---. Organization Chart. <>.

[Prepared by Jessica Wallace for Honors 382, Spring 2005. Published with the author's permission.]