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.