Since its founding in 1801, the D.C. Circuit has been the setting for many exciting and consequential actions.
The Historical Society brings that legacy to life through a variety of stimulating activities including reenactments, reevaluations, 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. Available on request.
The Society also has completed more than 76 oral histories of judges and practitioners who influenced the law in the Circuit. Many of the oral histories can be accessed through this website. Click on Oral History Program.
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.
Former Chief Judge Patricia Wald receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom
In bestowing on Judge Wald the national's highest civilian honor, President Obama said: "When
Patricia Wald's law firm asked if she'd come back after her first child, she said she'd like some time
off to focus on her family - and devoted almost 10 years to raising five children. But Patricia never
lost the itch to practice law. So while her husband watched the kids at home, she'd hit the library
on weekends. At the age of 40, she went back to the courtroom to show the "young kids" a thing or two.
As the first female judge on the D.C. Circuit, Patricia was a top candidate for Attorney General.
After leaving the bench, her idea of retirement was to go to The Hague to preside over the trials
of war criminals. Patricia says she hopes enough women will become judges that 'it's not worth celebrating'
anymore. But today, we celebrate her."
Oral History of William Jeffress
In his oral history, William Jeffress recounts his judicial clerkships and thirty-nine years of trial practice.
Displaying a trial lawyer's wit and story-telling skills, he recalls that he missed studying for the bar exam because
he was clerking for Judge Gerhard Gesell, who was wrestling with whether to issue a TRO in the Pentagon Papers case,
and then missed oral argument of the appeal in the Supreme Court because he was taking the exam. He passed. He tells
of hearing a summation so eloquent that even the court reporter cried. Of his representation of former President Richard M. Nixon,
Jeffress, a Democrat, proves the consummate Washington lawyer, saying: "Everything, the powers of all kinds of institutions, were
arrayed against him. And that's just the kind of person I like to represent." This fascinating oral history is the result of
several interviews conducted by Professor Angela J. Campbell of the Georgetown University Law Center between 2011 and 2013.
An Early Civil Rights Victory in a D.C. Court
In 1821 - long before the civil rights movement - a free black man living in Washington won an historic
victory for racial justice in a court of the District of Columbia.
William Costin was a trusted messenger of the Bank of Washington. His mother, descended from blacks and a Cherokee Indian chief,
had been a household slave at Mount Vernon and was believed to be the illegitimate half-sister of Martha Washington. It
was "Billy" Costin who boldly challenged a new set of Black Codes intended to stem the migration of free blacks into the
relatively hospitable District of Columbia.
The Act of April 1821 required free "persons of color" to appear before the mayor with documents signed by three "respectable"
white inhabitants of their neighborhood vouching for their good character and means of subsistence. Costin refused to comply. Read more.....
Judge Thomas A. Flannery Lecture
On Thursday, November 14, 2013, 5:00 p.m., the Fifth Annual Flannery Lecture will be delivered by Mary Jo White,
Chair of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission. Additional remarks will be made by Irvin B. Nathan, the Attorney General for the
District of Columbia. The lecture will take place in the Ceremonial Courtroom of the United States Courthouse. Judge Royce Lamberth and Judge
Paul Friedman will host the event. Please RSVP to JElam@zuckerman.com.
Read the event flyer for more information.
The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit didn't always give unconditional obeisance to the
U.S. Supreme Court when it believed an injustice would result. In a 1910 case it rebuffed a sanctity of contract defense
by a railroad company which had been sued for negligence in the death of a locomotive fireman.
The company argued that a provision in the Employers Liability Act of 1906 prohibiting the use of employment contracts as a
defense against an employee's suit for negligence was unconstitutional because it infringed upon the right to contract
elevated to constitutional status by the Supreme Court in its noteworthy 1905 decision in Lochner v. New York.
Rejecting that argument and writing for a unanimous panel, Justice Charles Robb stated, "After all, the right to contract is
hedged about with many restrictions, and must always yield to the common good."
(The ruling was not subsequently overturned. Justice Robb was the father of Roger Robb who joined the Circuit bench in 1969.)
Read Our Latest Newsletter
Read Francis Scott Key's facetious habeas corpus petition,
access the video of "Women in the Life and Law of the D.C. Circuit Courts," the Society's most recent program;
learn about the new search functionality of the Society's website; and more.
"The Star Spangled Banner" wasn't the only occasion for Washington lawyer Francis Scott
Key to write poetry. He turned to poetry regularly. Two of his poems, one funny and one sad, were for Judge
James Morsell of the old Circuit Court of the District of Columbia. James H. Johnston writes about a
warm, human side to the bench-and-bar relationship in the early days of the city.
Read the complete article.
Now on display in the Courthouse
JUNE L. GREEN was the second woman to serve on the U.S. District Court for
the District of Columbia -- the fourth woman to be named
a federal judge. She was nominated by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968
to fill the seat of the first female judge on the Court, Burnita Sheldon
Matthews. Judge Green served for 32 years, hearing many high-profile
matters including a lawsuit brought by members of Congress challenging the
constitutionality of U.S. military action in Grenada, which she dismissed
as nonjusticiable, and supervising the confinement of presidential
assailant John Hinckley. She ordered the public release of classified
documents involving CIA activity in Nicaragua, was part of a panel
upholding a Congressional enactment prohibiting cigarette advertising on
radio and television, and rebuffed efforts by President Richard Nixon to
impound funds authorized by Congress for the education of American Indians.
Judge Green died in 2001 at the home where she was
born 87 years earlier. The portrait of Judge Green was painted by Maryland
artist Peter Evan Egeli.
Portrait Ceremononies of Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, Judge A. Raymond Randolph, and Judge David B. Sentelle
The Historical Society recently posted the transcripts of the 2012 and 2013 ceremonies during which
Judge Ginsburg, Judge Randolph,
and Judge Sentelle presented their portraits to the Court.
"Women in the Life and Law of the D.C. Circuit Courts"
Watch the Society's June 2013 program, "Women in the Life and Law of the D.C. Circuit Courts," an historical overview of the participation of women in the Courts of the Circuit over the past half century; milestones in the law; hurdles encountered, cleared and remaining; and the impact of increasing numbers of women participating in the judicial process. Listen to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Judge Patricia Wald, Judge Royce Lamberth, Judge Gladys Kessler, attorneys Michele Roberts and Helgi Walker, former District Court Clerk Nancy Mayer-Whittington, and moderator Professor Barbara Babcock as they tell their own stories and assess the role of women in the D.C. Circuit Courts over the years.
A standing-room-only crowd attended the June program, the largest audience ever for an Historical Society event.
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 1,300 civil actions to 150.
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The Repossessed Stereo That Struck the Conscience of the Court
In a case from Washington, D.C., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit drew national
attention 50 years ago for its strong voice for consumer protection. In 1962, when Ora Lee Williams, an
uneducated mother of seven, defaulted on an installment contract for a stereo she had purchased for $515
(leaving $ 164 not yet paid) from the Walker-Thomas furniture store at 7th & M Streets, N.W., the company came to the
Court of General Sessions to repossess not only the stereo but -- under a fine-print, lengthy contract --
all the items she had purchased from the store since 1957. As was usual at the time, the Court, affirmed on appeal,
found no basis for denying enforcement of the contract.
The "unconscionability" provisions of the
Uniform Commercial Code had not yet been widely adopted. Yet, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia,
in an opinion written by J. Skelly Wright, employed its common law and equity authority to hold that "when a party of
little bargaining power, and hence little real choice, signs a commercially unreasonable contract with little or no
knowledge of its terms, it is hardly likely that (her) consent .. was ever given to all its terms." The decision,
Williams v. Walker-Thomas Furniture Co., 350 F. 2d 445 (1965), became a staple of first-year law school contract law courses.