Like other federal courts, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has received portraits of many of the judges who have sat on the Court. Typically, a judge’s current and previous law clerks collect the funds needed to commission an artist to paint a judge’s portrait at the time the judge is taking senior status, is elevated to a higher Court, or dies. The funds are held by the Historical Society of the D.C. Circuit. The completed portraits are donated to the Court. Many can be viewed as they hang in the Ceremonial Courtroom. Others are currently in storage. Portraits donated to the Court are official court property.
The District Court has dozens of portraits in its possession, some of which date back over 200 years. During his tenure as Chief Judge, Judge George L. Hart made arrangements to have portraits painted of judges who had not provided their portraits to the Court. Some of these judges were deceased; consequently, Richard C. Henderson was commissioned to paint these portraits relying on photographs and accounts from family and friends to inform his work. By early 1987, portraits of all but nine of the judges who had previously sat on the Court were in the Court’s possession.
The Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit has developed this web exhibit of the portraits that are currently in the possession of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The Society was assisted by graduate students from American University’s Public History Program, who conducted research about some of the portraits and some of the artists who painted them. The students measured the portraits and assessed the condition of those portraits that were accessible to them, namely those which are not hanging in the Ceremonial Courtroom.
Photographs of all the portraits were taken by Court staff, and biographical information about the judges was provided by the Federal Judicial Center. Research about the portraitists was undertaken by Historical Society staff and the American University students. It has not been possible to locate information about all of the portrait artists. Research continues, and it is hoped that additional information will be forthcoming.
Traditionally, when a portrait is donated to the Court, a ceremony takes place at which the judge and his/her family officially present the portrait to the Court. At the ceremony, colleagues, law clerks, family, and friends of the judge talk about her/his service. In some instances, transcripts of these ceremonies were available and have been included in this exhibit. Additional transcripts will be added as they become available.
It is hoped that this exhibit will help to memorialize the individual judges who have sat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The Historical Society plans to carry out a similar project respecting the portraits of judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.