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February 27, 2001 marked the 200th anniversary of the Federal Courts of the District of Columbia, the courts we know today as the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The history of these courts is interesting, albeit somewhat confusing; their names changed no fewer than six times since their creation. Indeed, from 1863 until 1893, the two courts were joined and called the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Because of their location in the nation's capital and their unusual dual jurisdiction as both federal and local courts, the District of Columbia courts were destined to make unique and important contributions to American jurisprudence.

This article describes the evolution of these courts from a three-judge circuit court with both trial and appellate jurisdiction to the two courts whose anniversary we celebrate this year. It then examines two prominent themes central to appreciating the core and character of these unique institutions. First, the courts of the District have served as principal reviewers of government action, protecting the rule of law against non-observance, neglect, or abuse by federal officials. Second, these courts have responded to the pleas and plight of vulnerable populations within the city, including African Americans, women, the poor, the disabled, political protestors, and criminal defendants. While these courts were frequently constrained by the often restrictive laws and customs of the time, their opinions, especially their dissents, revealed a sensitivity that was then notable and ultimately influential.

Publication Citation

90 Geo. L.J. 549-605 (2002)