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


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.


Reminiscences of an Old-Time Washington Lawyer

Courts and judges cannot be separated from the communities in which they are located and the lawyers who appear before them. In "Reminiscences of an Old-Time Washington Lawyer" published in this 1953 article in the Journal of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, lawyer Grant W. Wiprud recounts memories of a lawyer, who preferred to remain anonymous, had about the city and courts stretching back to the end of the Civil War.


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.


On March 7, 2018, the Society was delighted to sponsor a program entitled "From Goldwater to Zivotofsky - The Political Question Doctrine in the D.C. Circuit." The program began with remarks by Professor Stephen Vladeck of the University of Texas and then used a reenactment of the 1979 en banc argument in Goldwater v. Carter as a point of departure for group discussion.

Learn more about the program and the judges and lawyers who participated, and look at photos taken at the event. Note: the entire program was videotaped and will be available for viewing on this website soon.


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.


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.