About The Society

The Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit was formed in 1990 to help preserve the history of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. These are two of the federal courts located in Washington, D.C. The Courts in this circuit are separate from the District of Columbia court system, a state court system comprised of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals and the D.C. Superior Court.

The federal courts of the United States exercise their powers under Article III of the Constitution: “The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” Pursuant to this Article, Congress created thirteen federal circuits, twelve of which are comprised of district courts, which are trial courts, and a court of appeals. The thirteenth circuit is the Federal Circuit, which uniquely has nationwide jurisdiction in special subject areas. Each of the fifty States and the District of Columbia has its own, separate judicial system of state trial and appellate courts.

The term “circuit” reflects the fact that judges in England and the United States historically fulfilled their duties by riding circuit, traveling from town to town to hear cases and appeals. For example, in the 1850s, lawyers in Illinois, including Abraham Lincoln, would ride throughout the circuit with a local judge to serve clients who had cases pending before the judge. Today, the judges of eleven of the federal circuits still hold court in various cities within their jurisdictions. In the District of Columbia Circuit, however, the circuit with the smallest geographical jurisdiction, all judges – both appellate and trial court judges – hold court in a single courthouse.

Those researching the history of the D.C. Circuit courts may also want to review the courts’ opinions, which may be found in the Federal Reporter series at law libraries or online, and materials from our courts available at the National Archives and the Library of Congress.

Historical Society Seal

The Historical Society of
the District of Columbia Circuit

333 Constitution Avenue, NW, Room 4714
Washington, DC 20001-2866

If you have questions or would like more information, contact us at: info@dcchs.org

Now it is time to recognize the 25th anniversary of the Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit.

The Society was created in 1990, at the suggestion of then Circuit Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Chief Judges Pat Wald and Aubrey Robinson enthusiastically endorsed the project. Judge Ginsburg asked Dan Gribbon of Covington & Burling to organize the Society as its first president and asked Judge Louis Oberdorfer to Chair a Board of Judges and prominent attorneys. The Society then engaged Professor Jeffrey Morris of New York’s Touro Law Center to write a history of the courts of the D.C. Circuit, entitled “Calmly to Poise the Scale of Justice.” It’s a great book; I encourage you to read it.

The Historical Society’s activities have multiplied since that first venture. When you walk through the courthouse today, you will see Society exhibits that describe the historic work of our courts and of their judges and litigants. The Society also publishes periodic newsletters that reveal fascinating details about the Circuit’s rich past. And it has held more than 20 programs that have recounted or reenacted major matters heard in our courts, including Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, and Iran-Contra.

Oral histories are another important part of telling the story of the courts and those who served them. The Society has recorded 89 oral histories, most of which are available on its website at www.dcchs.org. Another 43 are currently in progress.

I also want to mention the Society’s Mock Court program, in which more than 80 D.C. public high school students participated this year. They were mentored by 26 lawyers, who helped them argue before 10 of our real judges. One issue presented: Did the police violate the Fourth Amendment by affixing a GPS device to the bicycles of certain student leaders?

The Society has also begun a “Law Clerk’s Initiative,” aimed at gathering current and former clerks for programs. The first program featured Justice Elena Kagan, who humorously recalled her own experiences as a law clerk on the Circuit.

The courts of this circuit are greatly indebted to the Society’s current leadership, in particular to President Steve Pollak and Executive Director Linda Ferren, who are carrying on the traditions and successes of the founders. We all look forward — or at least the younger of us do — to celebrating the Society’s 50th Anniversary 25 years from now.