The D.C. Circuit is one of the thirteen federal court circuits and consists of the U.S. District Court (a federal trial court) and the
U.S. Court of Appeals. The Circuit covers the smallest geographic area of any of the circuits - its jurisdiction extends only to
Washington D.C. – but it historically has had an outsized influence on the law as a frequent forum for litigation involving federal
government agencies. The Historical Society, which was started in 1990, brings the Circuit's rich legacy to life through articles and
oral histories, reenactments, displays and publications, archival preservation, and a mock appellate argument program for area high
Former District Court clerk Nancy Mayer-Whittington (pictured with Jim Davey) has delivered an astonishing, mutli-faceted oral history. Reading it is like opening the hood of a sleek new car only to be surprised at the complexities in the engine compartment. Court administration has changed dramatically from the old days of cronyism to today's professional, team-based managers. Her stories of administrative staff and judges provide fascinating insights into the court's history. She also bears witness to changes in the role of women both in her personal experience and in the court's workforce, which dropped from 85% women to 60% over time. And finally there are the changes in judicial technology and the building itself. If you've wondered why the cafeteria has such a stunning view, Mayer-Whittington tells you on page 242. Lawyer Ellen Woodbury was the interviewer.
Barrett Prettyman discusses clerking for Justices Jackson, Frankfurter, and Harlan. (Go to page 81 of the text.) Learn more about Barrett Prettyman in his oral history.
Read the Society's latest newsletter and learn about our recent Mock Court Program for city high school students, a new Archives feature, two of our oral histories, and more.
The elegant entry Judge Patricia M. Wald wrote about Judge J. Skelly Wright for
the Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law is posted on the Society's website
with permission. Appointed in 1949 by President Harry Truman to the federal bench in
New Orleans, Wright's ruling against segregation led Senator James Eastland of Missippi
to block Wright's elevation to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, so President John
Kennedy appointed him to the D.C. Circuit. Wright's bold opinions helped gain the
Circuit the reputation of being the second most important court in the United States.
Judge Wald concludes that history will remember Skelly Wright as a judge who brought
"the fairest outcomes for the neediest people."
The Historical Society presented its 11th annual Mock Court Program at the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse on March 11.
One hundred twenty-eight D.C. high school students from Maret, McKinley Tech, Woodson and School Without Walls
delivered appellate-style oral arguments before 11 participating federal judges. "Outstanding" was the universal judgment.
This year's program was unique. In addition to having the most student participants ever, Kaya Henderson, Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools, was on hand and went from courtroom to courtroom, listening to the students' arguments, impressed with what she heard. Read more....
The Vietnam War split hawks and doves among the Cold War warriors and produced a growing disillusionment within government.
Senior government positions became disputed and the bureaucracy was difficult to navigate. Writer Genevieve Beske relies on the
oral history of lawyer Paul Warnke, General Counsel and Assistant Secretary
in the Defense Department during this period, and tells about his
recounting of the bureaucratic casualties from "friendly-fire" in one of America's most controversial periods.
The courageous Solicitor Generals and Attorney Generals in Alan Rosenthal's oral
history bring to mind the tribute to Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird where Reverend Sykes tells the lawyer's daughter:
"Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passing." Writer Judy Feign, who took the oral history and writes about it, calls the
lawyers "titanic." From Attorney General Herbert Brownell ignoring President Dwight Eisenhower's suggestion to go slow on school
integration to Solicitor General Erwin Griswold refusing to follow orders from President Richard Nixon's White House that he
believed unethical, you see high-level government lawyers operating in the finest traditions of the profession.
New Oral History: Attorney Robert Trout
Criminal defense lawyer Robert Trout delivers an oral history that is a model
for the form. The anecdotes are priceless. The panic of trying to perform addition on the fly in a summation to a jury; a "foot line-up"
to identity the postman with the odd feet; a lesson in vote counting when he got the Supreme Court to reverse a court of appeals 9-0; and,
the punch-in-the-gut feeling of losing a big case. Then there are his truisms: prosecutors tend to see the world in black and white,
not shades of gray, and don't testify before Congress on possible criminal matters. He covers all the bases of the DC practice,
including the choice of large firm versus boutique, the non-monetary rewards of criminal practice, and personal and career problems
that will be familiar to many DC lawyers. Trout, aided by interviewer and fellow criminal defense lawyer Stu Pierson, drills down to provide behind-the-scenes looks into notable criminal cases and the strategic and tactical decisions he made in them. All of this is packaged in a page-turner by a man who sees the lawyer as the only thing standing between the might of government and the lone individual.
Associate Justice Antonin Scalia served on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals from August 1982 until joining the Supreme Court in September 1986. One of his colleagues on the lower court was Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She remembered their time together on the Court of Appeals in this tribute released by the Supreme Court:
Statement of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
Toward the end of the opera Scalia/Ginsburg, tenor Scalia and soprano Ginsburg sing a duet: "We are different, we are one," different in our interpretation of written texts, one in our reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve. From our years together at the D.C. Circuit, we were best buddies. We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots-the "applesauce" and "argle bargle"-and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion. He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh. The press referred to his "energetic fervor," "astringent intellect," "peppery prose," "acumen," and "affability," all apt descriptions. He was eminently quotable, his pungent opinions so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader's grasp.
Justice Scalia once described as the peak of his days on the bench an evening at the Opera Ball when he joined two Washington National Opera tenors at the piano for a medley of songs. He called it the famous Three Tenors performance. He was, indeed, a magnificent performer. It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend.
Have you recently visited the section of our website that features historical information?
We now post historical articles and anecdotes that are organized in 50-year increments so that visitors can more easily
locate writings about our Circuit and District Courts and the judges who have sat on them. Additionally, each month our
homepage rotates portraits from our archives of current and former judges.
We welcome your thoughts about these new features as well as any suggestions as to how we might improve our website.
Many men and women wax nostalgic in the oral histories they give the Society, looking back warmly and fondly on their careers,
but not so Circuit Judge Robert Bork. He frankly didn't seem to care much for his time on the bench.
Based on his reading of the oral history, John Lockwood, a George Washington Law School student, delivers an interesting
account of how Judge Bork found life on the bench.