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Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, 1863-1936
District Court of the U.S. for the District of Columbia, 1936-1948
U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, 1948-present
Congress created the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia in 1863 (12 Stat. 762) as a replacement for the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia after doubts were raised over the loyalty of one of the earlier courts’ judges. The judge in question, William Matthews Merrick, had been placed under house arrest during the Civil War for an unpopular decision to issue a writ of habeas corpus to an underage Union soldier. There was little evidence of actual disloyalty against Merrick, however, and he was eventually appointed to the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia in 1885.
The new court consisted of three justices and a chief justice appointed to serve during good behavior by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. The court initially held a blend of trial and appellate jurisdiction through the use of two “terms.” Any justice could hold a special term of the court and preside over both legal and equitable matters. Parties aggrieved by the special term’s rulings could appeal to the general term, which consisted of any three justices sitting en banc. The Supreme Court of the United States, in turn, heard appeals from the general term. In 1893, Congress created the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, which subsumed the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia’s appellate jurisdiction.
Because of the District’s unique legal status, the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia exercised jurisdiction over both local and federal matters from its inception. In O’Donoghue v. United States, 289 U.S. 516 (1933), the Supreme Court of the United States held that Congress’ plenary power over the District of Columbia enabled it to grant the court this unusually broad remit while preserving the court’s status as an Article III tribunal. This decision had the effect of protecting the justices of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia from salary reduction under Article III, §1. Although Congress changed the court’s name to the District Court of the United States for the District of Columbia in 1936, the court continued to exercise both local and federal jurisdiction until 1973, when Congress transferred the court’s local jurisdiction to the recently formed Superior Court of the District of Columbia, bringing the erstwhile Supreme Court of the District of Columbia’s jurisdiction broadly in line with that of other federal district courts.
For a list of judges and other information about the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, see the entry for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.