The D.C. Circuit was created in 1801 and consists of the two federal courts for the District of Columbia: the U.S. District Court (a federal trial court) and the U.S. Court of Appeals. Although the Circuit is responsible for the smallest geographic area of any of the thirteen federal circuits - its jurisdiction extends only to Washington D.C. - it historically has had an outsized influence on the law as a frequent forum for litigation involving federal government agencies. The Historical Society brings the Circuit's rich legacy to life through a variety of activities including articles and oral histories, reenactments, displays and publications, archival preservation, and mock arguments involving area high school students.

The Historical Society began its work in 1990 by commissioning Professor Jeffrey Brandon Morris to write a definitive history of the first 200 years of the D.C. Circuit Courts, Calmly to Poise the Scales of Justice: A History of the Courts of the District of Columbia Circuit. The printed book is available on request, but most of the Society's archival material is online at this Web site. This includes a fascinating and expanding collection of oral histories from noted judges and practitioners. In addition, the Web site houses the Society's burgeoning collection of articles on the Circuit's history contributed by scholars and lawyers.

This site also includes three significant exhibits the Society has developed -- an informative exhibit about the historic work of the D. C. Circuit Courts, currently on display on the first floor of the Courthouse, an exhibit of the portraits of 84 U.S. District Court judges, and an exhibit of the portraits and sculptures of 37 U.S. Court of Appeals judges.

What's New


Judge Robinson Now on View in the Courthouse: the portrait of Chief Judge Aubrey Robinson.
Aubrey Robinson, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia from 1982 to 1992, had a strong moral compass and an abiding sense of responsibility to his community. Born in New Jersey in 1922, he received undergraduate and law degrees from Cornell University. Judge Robinson served in the Army during World War II and thereafter went into private practice in Washington, D.C. Appointed to the district court by President Johnson in 1966, Robinson was fiercely independent and a stickler for judicial decorum. He issued significant rulings on mental health services in the District of Columbia, and his criticisms of overcrowding and confinement in the federal system gave rise to new standards in community-based residential facilities for the mentally ill. In 1987, Judge Robinson sentenced naval intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard to life in prison for selling classified information to Israel, a transaction that Israel did not admit until 1998. During his tenure as Chief, Judge Robinson earned high marks and considerable respect from his colleagues. Judge Robinson took senior status in 1992 and passed away in 2000.


Calmly to Poise the Scales of Justice: A History of the Courts of the District of Columbia Circuit Copies of Calmly to Poise the Scales of Justice: A History of the Courts of the District of Columbia Circuit are available for purchase.


Mock Court Program Read the Society's January 2015 newsletter to learn about our next program, "Judging Then and Now" and our upcoming Mock Court Program. You'll also find some items of historical interest, and you can learn a bit about the literary career of Society Board member Jim Johnston. And there's more.


Just Ahead
"Judging, Then and Now" - A dialogue featuring Senior Judge Paul Friedman, who joined the U.S. District Court in 1994, and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who joined the Court in 2013, moderated by Miguel Estrada. The judges will compare their experiences on the bench as they discuss changes in the confirmation process, the makeup of the Court, dockets, training, staffing, technology, and the impact of these and other changes on judging. The program is the second event developed by the Society's Law Clerk Initiative and will be presented in the Ceremonial Courtroom on Wednesday, February 25. Watch for additional information.

The Society's tenth Mock Court Argument Program will be held on Friday, March 20, 2015. Attorney mentors and student advocates will begin working together at the start of the new year. Already 23 mentors have signed on as have well over 100 area high school students. Look for additional information in the months ahead.


Roughing It
Think the current courthouse could be more sumptuous? It is a whole lot better than in the 1860's. At that time the District's judiciary was housed in the City Hall, along with the municipal government and the jail. Additional space was occupied by private law offices and boarders. When the clerk of the D.C. Supreme Court, Return J. Meigs, first arrived at the building he found no locks on the doors. He was dispatched to obtain a large stone which he lay against the outside door to secure the Court's chambers. Read more interesting facts about the courts.


Mock Court Program Call for Volunteer Lawyers to Mentor High School Students
High School students from the Washington area will be arguing cases before federal judges in the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse on Friday, March 20, 2015, in the Historical Society's 10th annual Mock Court Program. Lawyers willing to help the students prepare their arguments are asked to contact Program Chair Paras Shah at paras.shah@nteu.org. See information about the Society's 2014 Mock Court Program.


Paul Friedman Presentation of Judge Paul L. Friedman's Portrait
The portrait of Judge Paul L. Friedman, painted by artist Jon R. Friedman, was presented to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on September 19, 2014. The portrait, and the full text of the portrait ceremony, have been added to the Society's exhibit of judicial portraits. View portrait and read text of the portrait ceremony.


1835: Would-be Presidential Assassin Found Insane
The first known attempt to assassinate a president in Washington occurred on January 30, 1835 when Richard Lawrence, an English-born immigrant and unemployed drifter, fired two pistols at Andrew Jackson as the President was leaving the Capitol after a funeral. Both pistols misfired. Lawrence, who expressed a belief that he was the rightful heir to the thrones of England and the United States, and that Jackson was standing in his way, was tried before Chief Judge William Cranch. It took the jury just five minutes to decide he was "under the influence of insanity at the time he committed the act," and not guilty. Nonetheless, he was remanded to prison because there was no asylum in Washington and Judge Cranch concluded that it would be dangerous "to permit him to be at large while under this mental delusion." Read more interesting facts about the courts.