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


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.


Criminal Docket of 1835 Against the Peace and Government of the United States: The Criminal Docket of 1835
When writer Jim Johnston researched National Archives' records of the 1835 trial of Richard Lawrence, who tried to assassinate President Andrew Jackson, he stumbled onto a treasure trove in the records of other cases in the criminal docket that year. The would-be assassin was acquitted by reason of insanity, the first such successful defense in the Circuit, but for others justice was swift and sure on such charges as public nuisance, theft, prostitution, and murder. The old court records provide a fascinating look at the more violent and seamier side of history. Against the Peace and Government of the United States: The Criminal Docket of 1835


Judge Robb Now on display in the Courthouse
Before following his father's footsteps to the bench, D.C. Circuit Judge Roger Robb, a federal judge from 1969 - 1985, enjoyed a storied legal career representing both Washington power brokers and outsiders in some of the most noteworthy national security, ethics, and libel cases of the Cold War era. Known for his direct, assertive approach, Robb served as court-appointed counsel for Earl Browder, head of the Communist Party, who faced charges of contempt of Congress for refusing to incriminate former comrades. At the height of the McCarthy era, Robb acted as special prosecutor for the Atomic Energy Commission in its investigation of J. Robert Oppenheimer. In the 1960s, Robb defended Otto Otepka, the State Department security advisor charged with leaking unauthorized information regarding Kennedy-era security clearances to the Senate. On behalf of Senator Barry Goldwater, Robb won a libel suit against a magazine publisher who polled psychiatrists to ask whether Goldwater was mentally fit to serve as president. On the bench, Robb authored nearly 150 majority opinions, including an opinion invalidating the FAA order grounding all DC-10 airplanes in U.S. airspace in the wake of a 1979 crash and an opinion upholding the police handling of anti-Vietnam war riots in Washington, D.C. In 1979, as presiding judge on the three-judge panel created by the Ethics in Government Act, Judge Robb helped select and supervise the special prosecutors investigating allegations against Hamilton Jordan and Edwin Meese. Judge Robb took senior status in 1982 and passed away in 1985.


Newsletter for October Read the Society's fall 2014 Newsletter which, among other things, provides a link to the video of our latest program, "Sixty Years After Bolling v. Sharpe: Public Education and the D.C. Federal Courts," provides historical reflections on Justice Wiley Rutledge and the dissenting judge in U.S. v. Bollman, introduces the oral histories of Steve Pollak and Abe Krash, and welcomes Jason M. Knott, the Society's new Treasurer.


Abe Krash Oral History of Abe Krash, Esq.
Abe Krash was hired on a temporary basis as the twelfth lawyer at Arnold, Fortas & Porter in 1952. He spent his career there. In 2006, he delivered a lecture at Georgetown Law School on the changes in the legal profession he witnessed, but his oral history itself is a case study of change from an era when lawyers considered themselves generalists capable of handling any legal problem to today's view of them as specialists and even "technicians." Krash tells of his run-in with founding partner Thurman Arnold over the younger man's objection to the firm's pro bono representation of poet and Fascist Ezra Pound. Arnold responded, "Look sonny boy, you like to think of yourself as being a civil liberties lawyer, don't you? It is very easy to be a civil liberties lawyer if you are representing people with whom you agree and whom you like. The real test is whether you stand up for people who you don't like and whose opinion you detest." The oral history was taken by Stuart Pierson.


Sixth Annual Judge Thomas A. Flannery Lecture
Robert S. Mueller III, former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, will deliver the Sixth Annual Judge Thomas A. Flannery Lecture on Thursday, October 23, 2014, in the Ceremonial Courtroom of the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse. A.J. Kramer, Federal Public Defender for the District of Columbia, will make additional remarks. The program will begin at 5 p.m. and will be followed by a reception.

For additional information contact Judy Elam at jelam@zuckerman.com or at 202.778.1803. You may register for the lecture at www.flannerylecture.com.


On the anniversary of the writing of "The Star Spangled Banner," read an article by Historical Society Board member James H. Johnston about the varied interests and writings of Francis Scott Key. A D.C. lawyer, courthouse poet, and friend of Judge James Morsell of the Circuit Court, Key wrote the words to the song while a prisoner of the British with whom he was negotiating for the release of a client. Read the complete article.


Bolling v. Sharpe Sixty Years After Bolling v. Sharpe: Public Education and the D.C. Federal Courts
The special relationship between the Courts of the D.C. Circuit and the D.C. public schools was the subject of the Society's most recent program, "Sixty Years After Bolling v. Sharpe." The program can be viewed in its entirety on the Society's website. Listen as James Forman of Yale Law School moderates a discussion among Judge David S. Tatel; Kaya Henderson, Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools; Rod Boggs, Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs; and Brian W. Jones, General Counsel of Strayer University on the significance of Bolling v. Sharpe and Brown v. Board of Education as well as key public education issues and challenges presented by the twin goals of achieving integration and improving education in public schools. Listen also to Eloise Pasachoff of Georgetown University Law Center as she highlights the history of the Courts' engagement with the D.C. schools, and read the full text of her remarks. The program can be viewed here.