History of the Courts2020-12-07T13:56:55-05:00

The History of the D.C. Circuit Courts

1800

1801

  • One year after Congress moved to Washington, D.C., the Federalist-controlled Congress passed—and President John Adams signed—the Judiciary Act of 1801.

The Creation

One year after Congress moved to Washington, D.C., the Federalist-controlled Congress passed—and President John Adams signed—the Judiciary Act of 1801.

  • The earliest judges to ever be appointed were William Cranch, Thomas Johnson (who refused to serve), and James Marshall, in 1801. Buckner Thruston, a former U.S. Senator, was appointed in 1809, and James Morsell joined in 1815.

The Earliest Judges

The earliest judges to ever be appointed were William Cranch, Thomas Johnson (who refused to serve), and James Marshall, in 1801. Buckner Thruston, a former U.S. Senator, was appointed in 1809, and James Morsell joined in 1815.

1801

Scandalous Fees

The 1801 Act creating the D.C. Courts also authorized the President to appoint a Marshal for the District of Columbia. In addition to serving subpoenas, summonses, writs, and warrants, the Marshal of D.C. was responsible for the jail, served as Marshal of the U.S. Supreme Court, maintained order at public functions in and around the presidential mansion, and by James Monroe's second term became a social aide to the President.

1814

1820

A Familiar Way to Cut the Civil Caseload

Because of population growth and the unanticipated litigiousness of the District's citizens, the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia was able to handle only half of its cases by 1820. More than a thousand lawsuits were awaiting trial. Congress dealt with this by increasing the jurisdictional amount from $20 to $50. As a result, in just two years the business of the Circuit Court fell from 1300 civil actions to 150.

1821

1831

Francis Scott Key, Lawyer and Poet

Francis Scott Key started his law practice in Frederick, Maryland and shared an office with his brother-in-law, future Chief Justice Roger Taney. Later, Key moved to Washington D.C. and practiced before the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia. He is, of course, most famous for writing the words of "The Star Spangled Banner."

  • Think efforts to limit the death penalty are a relatively recent development? Not true. Acting at the request of President Andrew Jackson, Congress in 1831 abolished capital punishment in the District of Columbia except for treason, murder, piracy, and rape committed by slaves.

D.C. Ahead of its Time

Think efforts to limit the death penalty are a relatively recent development? Not true. Acting at the request of President Andrew Jackson, Congress in 1831 abolished capital punishment in the District of Columbia except for treason, murder, piracy, and rape committed by slaves.

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.

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.

1837

Judicial Temperament

Buckner ThrustonActing on the complaint of members of the bar, Congress in 1837 established an ad hoc committee to investigate charges that D.C. Circuit Court judge Buckner Thruston was rude, inattentive and quarrelsome. The record showed he was often two to three hours late for court sessions.

1840

1842

DO YOU KNOW

Washington was policed by constables supervised by the D.C. Circuit Court until 1842?

1843

1850

  • Think current punishment for crimes is excessive? When the courts of the District of Columbia opened for business in 1801, penalties included whipping, the pillory, and branding with a great key heated to a white glow by a jailer.

Getting Tough on Crime

Think current punishment for crimes is excessive? When the courts of the District of Columbia opened for business in 1801, penalties included whipping, the pillory, and branding with a great key heated to a white glow by a jailer.

Now On Exhibit:
The History of the Courts of the D.C. Circuit

History of the Courts

Created amidst the controversy over President John Adams’s appointment of the so-called “Midnight Judges,” the Courts of the District of Columbia Circuit have been transformed and transformative over the two centuries of their existence.

Visit the exhibit to learn how the D.C. Circuit Courts were formed and the challenges overcome in their creation.

visit the exhibit

Calmly to Poise The Scales of Justice:
A History of the Courts of the D.C. Circuit

Purchase the book now for $30

or send a check to:

The Historical Society of the D.C. Circuit
Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse
333 Constitution Ave NW, Room 4714
Washington, D.C.  20001

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