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.
"The Dark Days of the Black Codes"
For African Americans, Washington D.C. before the Civil War was a police state.
They could be stopped at any time and asked for papers to prove they were free. Without papers,
they might be arrested and sold at auction. Such was the 1835 case of Nancy Jones that author and lawyer
Ted Pulliam found in the files of the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia and writes about in
Dark Days of the Black Codes."
Oral History of Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer
Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer's oral history not only provides a feel for the early life of the World War II generation but also shows the
U.S. District Court from the perspective of the bench. An example of the former is Oberdorfer's recollection that his mother, a teetotaler,
would not let him go to the University of Virginia because of its reputation as a party school. Thus, he showed up for his freshman year
at Dartmouth without ever having visited. Then, after being Editor-in-Chief of Yale Law Journal, he returned to Alabama to take a
bar review course run by the son of a former colonel in the Confederate Army. Oberdorfer talks about what it's like to be on the
bench, the role of clerks, and how new laws, such as those calling for tougher drug sentencing, moved the court's workload
toward the criminal and, for Oberdorfer, took much of the pleasure out of being a judge. The history was taken in 1992 by Susan
Bloch of Georgetown University Law Center and Benjamin F. Wilson, Beveridge & Diamond.
The Short Unhappy Judgeship of Thurman Arnold
Thurman Arnold, a founder of Arnold and Porter, epitomized the best in Washington lawyers and was one of the most intriguing individuals ever to serve on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. His biographer, Spencer Weber Waller, explains why in a new article written especially for the DC Circuit Historical Society.
Visit the Historical Society's On-Line Portrait Exhibit
You can view the portraits of 37 judges who have sat on the U.S. Court of Appeals
for the D.C. Circuit and the portraits of 84 judges who have sat on the U.S.
District Court for the District of Columbia. While each of the portraits was individually commissioned by the judge, the judge's
law clerks typically raised the funds to cover the artist's costs.
Most of the portraits currently hang in the Courtrooms and halls of the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse.
Life in the Trenches
Think a trial judge's job is mainly to ride herd on what happens in the courtroom? Think again. In the Iran-Contra case, lawyers for Oliver
North filed over 100 motions before the trial even began, and the judge, U.S. District Judge Gerhard Gesell, was obliged to issue 193 separate
written opinions before a verdict was reached.
Charles A. Horsky: An Intentional Life
The life of Charles A. Horsky is remembered in a video made to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday. The video was shown for the first time on October 19, 2010, at a program honoring Mr. Horsky. The program was sponsored by the Council for Court Excellence, an organization he created that is dedicated to examining and improving the District of Columbia justice system.
You can watch the video as well as read the four interviews which comprise Mr. Horsky's oral history, which were held in 1992 and 1994.
Read Our Latest Newsletter
Learn about opportunities to write and publish historical articles; listen as Judge Gesell gives his oral history; read about former Chief Judge Wald receiving the Presidental Medal of Freedom; review the Society's newest oral histories -- the histories of Daniel "Mack" Armstrong, William Jeffress, and Richard Wiley; and more.
Oral History of Richard E. Wiley
In Richard Wiley's readable oral history, he traces his career from army lawyer at the Pentagon, to general counsel, commissioner, and
chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and finally to private practice where he eventually founded one of the most
prominent telecommunications law firm in the country. He capped his career by chairing the advisory committee that made High
Definition Television a reality, a fitting accomplishment for a high definition lawyer. The questions are asked by George Jones,
a highly skilled litigator, who makes this oral history seem more like a conversation between friends. If you want to read two of
the best lawyers in the city turn in a peak performance, this oral history is for you.
Listen to the voice recording of interviews of Judge Gerhard A.Gesell (District Court 1967 – 93) as he gave his oral history to the Historical Society.
What a person did before he or she became famous is often just as interesting as what he did later. Such is the case with Judge Gesell. Who knew that as a young man traveling through Germany after graduating from college, Gesell had occasion to see Adolf Hitler in the flesh at operas and beer halls and so wrote a letter to the New York Times warning, “This guy is a dangerous fellow.” Gesell came to Washington after Yale Law School and worked in government for the likes of Jerome Frank and William O. Douglas. Eventually, recruited by Dean Acheson and Edward Burling, Gesell joined Covington & Burling as a partner and made a name for himself as an outstanding antitrust lawyer and litigator. While in private practice, he served in a variety of public service positions, including Chairman of the President’s Commission on Equal Opportunity in the Armed Forces, until President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 1967. The lifetime oral history, which you can now hear as well as read on the Society’s web site, was taken by John G. Kester, a partner at Williams & Connolly.
Oral History of Daniel "Mack" Armstrong
If you are looking for the ultimate insider's view of government appellate litigation, you will want to read the oral history
interviews of Daniel "Mack" Armstrong taken by Matthew Sheldon. Armstrong served for thirty-eight years in the general counsel's
office of the Federal Communications Commission, most of that time as Chief of the FCC's Litigation Division. In that
role he argued some sixty-five appellate cases, primarily before the D.C. Circuit, but also before numerous other Circuit
Courts and the United States Supreme Court. Although nominally a Republican (who served in the Department of Justice and FBI during
the Nixon Administration), Armstrong was a civil servant first and gives a lawyerly, nonpartisan assessment of the FCC during a
groundbreaking period in communications law under both Republican and Democratic presidents. His oral history is a case study
of a federal agency and the judges who oversaw it in a changing regulatory environment, as well as a portrait of a talented
and dedicated public servant.