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 school students.

What's New


See the list of completed oral histories taken by the Society and their availability.


Judge Richard J. Leon's portrait, painted by artist Michael Shane Neal, was presented to the U.S. District Court on May 11, 2018. Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell presided at the ceremony. Judge Leon's portrait appears in the Historical Society's on-line portrait exhibit.


Judge Richey on Prison Reform

Federal District Court Judge Charles Richey addressed the need for prison reform in an article by the same name in a 1973 article for the Journal of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia. In it, he briefly discusses the history of prison reform before turning to then-pending proposals.


Welcome to new Historical Society Board members

Serving a first three-year term:
Hon. Richard J. Leon, Senior District Court judge, appointed February 2002. Previously, a partner first at Baker & Hostetler and then at Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease. While in private practice, he served as Counsel to Congress in the investigations of three sitting presidents.

Beth Brinkmann, partner at Covington & Burling with experience in appellate and Supreme Court litigation. Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Division, U. S. Department of Justice.

Peter D. Keisler, partner at Sidley Austin where he is co-leader of the firm's Supreme Court and Appellate practices. Former Acting Attorney General of the United Sates.

Caroline D. Krass, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of General Insurance, the American International Group. Former partner and Chair of Gibson Dunn's National Security Practice Group.

Channing Phillips, former U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and Senior Counsel to the Attorney General of the United States.

Serving a second three-year term:
Hon. Patricia A. Millett, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
Hon. Ketanji Brown Jackson, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
Amy Jeffress, partner at Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer
Stuart S. Taylor, Jr., Brookings Institution
K. Chris Todd, partner at Kellogg, Hansen, Todd Figel & Frederick
Helgi C. Walker, partner at Gibson Dunn


Sherman L. Cohn on Court Reorganization

Congress has reorganized and reordered the courts in the District of Columbia on several occasions. The most recent of these was in 1970. Professor Sherman Cohn of Georgetown University Law School commented on this legislation at a 1972 symposium organized by the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, and his remarks were printed in the Association's Journal.


Lawrence Walsh's Report on the Judiciary

Noted lawyer Lawrence Walsh, when serving as Deputy Attorney General, delivered a talk to the National Conference on Judicial Selection and Court Administration that was carried in the Journal of the Bar Association of the District Columbia in 1960. Walsh begins with a comparison between the British and American approaches to judicial selection and goes on to analyze the selection process in the United States including the role of organized bars.


You can view "From Goldwater to Zivotofsky: The Political Question Doctrine in the D.C. Circuit" -- the Society's March 7, 2018, program -- in its entirety.

Watch the re-enactment of the 1979 en banc argument in Goldwater v. Carter before Judges Harry T. Edwards and Stephen F. Williams by Catherine Carroll and Professor Harold Hongju Koh. Then listen as Professor Stephen Vladeck, Beth Brinkmann, Catherine Carroll and Professor Koh analyze the current status of the doctrine and its underpinnings with moderator Paul Smith.


Read the Society's April newsletter and access the video of the Tinker re-enactment, learn about two other Society programs -- "From Goldwater to Zivotofsky -- The Political Question Doctrine in the D.C.Circuit" and the Society's 13th Mock Court Program for area youth, and read about the exclusion of black attorneys from the Courthouse law library -- "A Disturbing Truth" -- and articles from the archives of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia.


Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District Video
Over 240 students came to the Courthouse in December to watch the re-enactment of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case involving high school students' free speech rights. Judges David Tatel, Sri Srinivasan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson played the roles of the judicial panel, and Judge Tatel's law clerks presented the arguments and background information. A program highlight: named plaintiff Mary Beth Tinker was interviewed about her personal experience in the events leading up to this landmark decision, and answered a variety of questions posed by the students. Watch the entire program.


The Historical Society's 13th Annual Mock Court Program.
Before heading off to argue cases involving 1st and 4th amendment issues before 10 federal judges, over 125 high school students crowded into the Ceremonial Courtroom to be welcomed warmly by Chief Judge Merrick Garland. After presenting their well-prepared arguments, the students were praised for their work by Chief Judge Beryl Howell and each of the participating judges, and then headed to the Atrium for a pizza lunch.

Read more about the Mock Court Program, the volunteer lawyer mentors, and the Outstanding Advocate Awards, and look at some photos of the event.


Trial of John Surratt
Among those tried by an military court and executed in 1865 for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln was Mary Surratt, who was accused not only of boarding the assassination conspirators but also for aiding John Wilkes Booth's escape afterward. She was the first woman executed by the United States government. Although her adult son John also was thought complicit, he was out of the country and beyond the reach of the law. However, in 1867, John Surratt was returned to the United States for trial but in civilian court in Washington. In this 1940 article for the Journal of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, E. Hilton Jackson writes about the different cases and different outcomes for mother and son.


Segregation in the Washington, D.C. Federal Courthouse
Four years after the Supreme Court's rejection of racial segregation in the historic 1954 Brown v. Board decision, the whites-only Bar Association of the District of Columbia still had its library in rent-free space in the Prettyman courthouse. Some years earlier, under threat of expulsion by Attorney General Robert Jackson, the Association had agreed to let black lawyers use the library when it was in the old courthouse for an annual eight-dollar fee, rejecting proposals that they sit in a separate room.

Writing in the December issue of the Howard Law Journal (article begins on page 35), Historical Society member James H. Johnston describes what he calls "a disturbing truth." Johnston says that despite the Bar Association's refusal to admit black attorneys until late in 1958, "neither the federal government nor federal judges would throw it out of the courthouse."

According to Johnston, it took seven attempts, four lawsuits, three court of appeals opinions, one federal district court opinion -- and dead cats and garbage left on the lawn of Bar Association President Charles Rhyne who advocated integration -- to bring about the end of the Association's whites-only policy. The Association had voted to allow women to join 15 years earlier, in 1941.

The first African American lawyers were admitted to the Bar Association of D.C. in 1959, and in 1982 it was directed to move out of the courthouse because the judges needed the space.