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


Roger Adelman Roger Adelman's oral history, the most recent by a Washington trial lawyer, demonstrates why this vanishing breed was so special. Adelman distinguishes "trial lawyers" from modern "litigators" because they operated by the seat-of-the-pants without extensive discovery and legions of support staff. He counts some 300 trials in forty-plus years. He saw it all. Judge Bryant called lawyers to the bench during trials to dispense advice. Legendary prosecutor Vic Caputy attended a trial after he retired, shouted an o bjection from the audience, and was sustained. Adelman recalls having to start a new trial as soon as the jury from the previous case left the courtroom to deliberate. He was lead prosecutor in the trial of John Hinckley, who shot President Ronald Reagan. Adelman's years of teaching criminal law at Georgetown Law School pay off in an oral history that is both readable and educational, taken by Steve Pollak.


Having the President, particularly a freemason like Harry Truman, lay the cornerstone for the new courthouse seemed simple enough. But the date chosen proved to be a problem. Truman had something far more serious on his mind that morning, but he still showed up in the afternoon to do the job. Find out what occupied Truman that morning and what was left in the cornerstone in David McCarthy's fascinating article.


Judge Patricia Wald Judge Patricia M. Wald was presented with the Henry J. Friendly Medal for contributions to the law in the tradition of Judge Friendly by the American Law Institute on May 18, 2016. Her colleague, Senior Circuit Judge Harry T. Edwards, introduced her.

Addressing members of the American Law Institute, Judge Wald looked back on her sixty-year career as law clerk, advocate, and judge. She compared her experience clerking for Jerome Frank on the Second Circuit to "grabbing the tail of a comet" because of the Judge's wide range of interests, from psychiatry to the Hopi language. She urged diversity on the bench - diversity not only in race, gender, and ethnicity, but also in experience, outlook and temperament. In her view, judges should "provide a kind of microcosm of the outside world in which their decisions will operate." Judge Wald's experience in summer jobs on a manufacturing assembly line, for example, helped shape her understanding of appeals from the National Labor Relations Board. Such diversity, she says, is crucial because every judge "subtly changes the perception and dynamics of a court" to provide more equitable and just outcomes.

In introducing Judge Wald, Judge Edwards reminded everyone of her stellar career: active service for 20 years, Chief Judge for five, author of some 800 opinions. He remembers that Judge Wald typically summarized a case better than the lawyers arguing it. On one occasion, her summary was so astounding that the advocate passed out. And, of course, he notes that Judge Wald was the first woman on the D.C. Circuit bench and a role model for the women who followed.

Photograph courtesy of Slowking.


Judge James Buckley Before his DC Circuit service, Judge James Buckley ran for and was elected to the Senate. Read more of his oral history.


Samuel Dash Professor Samuel Dash of Georgetown Law School recalls serving as Chief Counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee. Read more of his oral history.


Warner Gardner In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt launched a dramatic legislative program to help the country recover from the Great Depression and to reform business conditions, but he ran headlong into old legal notions of "liberty of contract." The Supreme Court had fallen back on these in striking down key elements of Roosevelt's program. Writer Genevieve Beske relies on the oral history of lawyer Warner Gardner to show what was happening behind the scenes in this clash with the courts including Roosevelt's so-called "court packing" proposal to name additional justices to the Supreme Court.


Nancy Mayer-Whittington Former District Court clerk Nancy Mayer-Whittington (pictured with Jim Davey) has delivered an astonishing, multi-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 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.


The Wrights 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.