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.

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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.


In 1959, E. Barrett Prettyman, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, in a speech to the Bar Association of the District of Columbia outlined his views of the duties of a Federal Circuit Chief Judge.


Alexander Holtzoff was born in Riga, Russia in 1886 and served as federal district judge from 1945 until his death in 1969. During his prior career in the Justice Department, he helped write the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Thus, the two articles Holtzoff wrote for the Journal of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia on the Rules of Civil Procedure before becoming a judge are notable. The first was in 1939 and the second in 1940. He also wrote a more general article in 1939 on Recent Developments in Federal Jurisprudence. After his death, the Bar Association paid tribute to him in the Journal and included an article by Miami News report Ian Glass about Holtzoff serving there temporarily to preside over a fraud case. The article recounted that when counsel objected to the admission of evidence in the case and cited a certain law as the reason, Holtzoff immediately overruled the objection, adding, "Incidentally, I know about that law. I authored it."" In 1973, Holtzoff friend Judge Matthew McGuire penned another tribute in the Bar Journal.


Goldwater ProgramLearn more about the Historical Society's upcoming program, just renamed: "From Goldwater to Zivotofsky: the Political Question Doctrine in the D.C. Circuit" and join us on March 7, 2018, at 4:30 p.m. in the Ceremonial Courtroom for a re-enactment and panel discussion. Program flyer attached.


Being an active member of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia was Bolitha "Bo" Laws' path to a judgeship in the U.S. District Court in 1938. The Association's Journal carried his photograph after he became Bar President. A few months later, the Journal announced his appointment to the judiciary. And the same issue carried his year-end statement on the condition of the Bar. Those were different times. In the year-end statement, Laws urges fellow lawyers to work with the Department of Justice to reduce crime in the city.


Save the Date: Wednesday, March 7th, 4:30 p.m.
Goldwater v. Carter: The Political Question Doctrine Revisited

Join the Historical Society for a program on the political question doctrine. Texas Law Professor Steve Vladeck will open, describing the doctrine and setting the stage for a reenactment of arguments presented to the D.C. Circuit in Goldwater v. Carter on the question whether the doctrine precluded the Court from considering Sen. Goldwater's claim that, absent congressional approval, President Carter lacked authority to terminate the Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan. Professor Harold Koh of Yale Law and Erin E. Murphy of Kirkland & Ellis will be the advocates. Circuit Judges Stephen Williams and Harry Edwards will make up the Bench. A panel discussion exploring the status and scope of the doctrine today will follow the reenactment, with Paul M. Smith of the Campaign Legal Center serving as moderator and Beth Brinkmann of Covington & Burling joining Vladeck, Koh, and Murphy on the panel Click here for additional program information.