Congress first established judicial courts for the District of Columbia in an act of February 27, 1801 (2 Stat. 103). The circuit court for the District of Columbia was authorized to exercise the same jurisdiction as the U.S. circuit courts, which served as trial courts and heard some appeals from U.S. district courts. One of the three judges nominated to the circuit court was designated the chief judge. The 1801 act divided the District of Columbia into two counties, Alexandria and Washington, and ordered the District of Columbia circuit court to hold four sessions a year in each county. In addition to its federal jurisdiction, the court exercised the jurisdiction of a local court, which applied the law and followed the procedures of Virginia for its Alexandria sessions and those of Maryland for its Washington sessions.
The Judiciary Act of 1801 (2 Stat. 89) established a U.S. district court for the District of Potomac, which included the District of Columbia as well as portions of Virginia and Maryland. This court was abolished a year later, and the Judiciary Act of 1802 (2 Stat. 156) provided for the chief judge of the District of Columbia U.S. circuit court to hold two annual sessions of a district court, with the same jurisdiction as the U.S. district courts. While some District of Columbia courts exercised a combination of federal and local jurisdiction, specialized courts exercised exclusively local jurisdiction. The act establishing the circuit court also provided for an orphans’ court and authorized the President to appoint in each county justices of the peace, who would exercise the same authority granted such officers under the laws of Maryland and Virginia. In 1838 Congress established a criminal court to relieve the circuit court of criminal proceedings.
The Civil War brought a major reorganization of the courts for the District of Columbia. In part out of concern about the loyalty of one of the circuit court’s judges, Congress in 1863 abolished the circuit and district courts for the District of Columbia, thereby removing the three incumbent judges from office. The same act (12 Stat. 762) established the Supreme Court for the District of Columbia with four justices, one of whom would be designated chief justice. The court was granted the same powers and jurisdiction as the circuit court, and any one of the justices could convene a U.S. circuit court, a U.S. district court, or a local criminal court. The work of the court in the late-nineteenth century continued to be dominated by matters of local jurisdiction, although its federal jurisdiction gave it an increasingly important role in the oversight of the executive branch.
In 1893, a Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia was created to exercise jurisdiction over appeals from the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. The mix of local and federal jurisdiction exercised by the District of Columbia courts raised questions about their status and their relationship to other federal courts. In decisions of 1927 and 1933, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia were comparable to the U.S. circuit courts of appeals and the U.S. district courts, respectively. The Congress in 1934 designated the Court of Appeals as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and in 1948 as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The 1948 act (62 Stat. 869) specifically stated that the judges of the court had the same authority as the judges of the courts of appeals for the regional circuits. In 1936 Congress changed the name of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia to the District Court for the District of Columbia (49 Stat. 1921). In 1948 Congress again changed the name, to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and provided that the justices of the court would henceforth be known as judges.
The federal courts in the District of Columbia exercised a combination of federal and local jurisdiction until 1971. The District of Columbia Court Reform and Criminal Procedure Act of 1970 (84 Stat. 473) established two courts, the Superior Court and the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, to assume responsibility for local jurisdiction, similar to that exercised by state courts.
Morris, Jeffrey Brandon, Calmly to Poise the Scales of Justice: A History of the Courts of the District of Columbia Circuit (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2001).
Federal Courts of the District of Columbia