You are here

Courts of the District of Columbia

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. The District of Columbia was not initially created as a judicial circuit, however. 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. In the late nineteenth century, the court’s work continued to be dominated by matters of local jurisdiction. As the federal administrative apparatus grew in the early twentieth century, however, the court’s federal jurisdiction meant it heard an increasing number of cases involving federal agencies.

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 and the local Police courts. Its jurisdiction was subsequently modified to include appeals from the Municipal and Juvenile courts. In 1934 Congress re-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 district and appellate courts were relieved of their local jurisdiction by the District of Columbia Court Reform and Criminal Procedure Act of 1970 (84 Stat. 473). This law, which took full effect in 1973, 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. 

Further Reading:
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).