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Library of Congress Manuscripts: An Illustrated Guide

Federal Judiciary

Felix Frankfurter. Draft decree to enforce the Brown v. Board of Education decision. 8 April 1955. Felix Frankfurter Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
Chief Justice Earl Warren's brief 1955 opinion announcing the decree to enforce Brown v. Board of Education, decided one year earlier, held that school districts must eliminate racial discrimination "with all deliberate speed." Justice Felix Frankfurter had suggested the phrase and had used it in this draft of a memorandum prepared on 8 April 1955. It had been introduced into constitutional law by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., whom Frankfurter revered and whose graceful but later troublesome phrase had appeared in several Frankfurter opinions that had preceded Brown.

The Manuscript Division's congressional collections include the papers of many members who were instrumental in drafting legislation that shaped the character of the federal judiciary. Some of these legislators—James Madison and Oliver Ellsworth, for example—were architects of the federal judicial system by virtue of their roles in writing the Judiciary Act of 1789. In this century, special mention should be given to Congressman Emanuel Celler of New York and Senator Thomas J. Walsh of Montana, whose papers reflect their leading roles on congressional judiciary committees and their efforts to develop collegiality and cooperation among the branches of government. The extensive correspondence between Senator Walsh and many federal judges on modern procedural reform, for example, demonstrates the close working relationships required within government to make federal justice genuinely effective.

Papers relating to the executive branch also bear upon the federal judiciary, and the presidential papers described previously contain a wealth of material on judicial selection and nomination, the organization of courts, and the development of an agenda for federal criminal and civil litigation. Equally valuable for documenting the nation's judicial history are the many collections of papers of attorneys general from Edmund Randolph through Elliot Richardson as well as the papers of many solicitors general, including Benjamin Bristow, Charles Fahy, and Robert Bork, who argue the government's cases in the Supreme Court and in important litigation elsewhere.

The principal actors in the drama of federal justice, however, are the judges themselves. Here the division's collections are truly magisterial, for they include the nation's largest corpus of the papers of chief justices and associate justices, as well as those of many judges of the lower federal courts who played leading roles in American life. Among the chief justices, the division holds the papers of Oliver Ellsworth, John Marshall, Roger B. Taney, Salmon P. Chase, Morrison R. Waite, Melville Weston Fuller, William Howard Taft, Charles Evans Hughes, Harlan Fiske Stone, and Earl Warren. The papers of associate justices are also well represented here. For the Warren Court (1953-69) alone, the division holds the papers of Hugo L. Black, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, Harold H. Burton, Robert H. Jackson, William J. Brennan, Jr., Byron R. White, Thurgood Marshall, and Arthur J. Goldberg.

Judicial papers contain materials that range from diaries and family correspondence to scrapbooks of newspaper clippings. Although they are most useful for studying the development of law and government, the letters, opinions, and memoranda written by some justices, especially Frankfurter and Jackson, can stand on a shelf with the finest English prose.

Roger Brooke Taney. Letter to Caleb Cushing thanking Cushing for his support of Taney's decision in the Dred Scott case. 9 November 1857. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
Dred Scott v. Sanford, 19 How. 393, was decided by the United States Supreme Court on 6 March 1857. Scott (1809-1858), a slave, had been taken many years before from Missouri, a slave state, to the free state of Illinois and to Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. After returning to Missouri, he sued for his freedom on the grounds that his residence in a free state and in free territory had released him from bondage. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (1777-1864), delivering the opinion of the Court, held that a slave's status was fixed by the laws of the state in which he lived. Grateful for his support after the decision, Taney thanked Cushing in this letter of 9 November 1857, indicating that the "public mind" was not "in a condition to listen to reason" and noting that "wild passions ruled the hour."

The federal judiciary played a vanguard role in the modern civil rights movement. In addition to the papers of Supreme Court justices, the division also collects the papers of many lower-court judges, such as Simon E. Sobeloff, J. Skelly Wright, and Frank M. Johnson, Jr., who gave new meaning to basic constitutional guarantees. Modern federal judges have also played leading roles in the fields of administrative law, criminal justice, and legislative reapportionment, and these matters can be explored in the papers of Gerhard A. Gesell, Carl E. McGowan, Harold Leventhal, E. Barrett Prettyman, Clement F. Haynsworth, Jr., Shirley Hufstedler, Irving R. Kaufman, and Robert P. Patterson.

The papers of lawyers who practice in federal courts can also provide insights into judicial history, and among the most important are the papers of Daniel Webster, Moorfield Storey, Joseph H. Choate, Clarence S. Darrow, Elihu Root, Thomas G. Corcoran, James M. Landis, and Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Modern litigation is often undertaken by public interest groups, and our understanding of recent legal history is greatly enhanced by the records of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Center for National Policy Review. Journalists who cover the federal judiciary have also placed papers in the division's care, helping scholars acquire an informed understanding of the judicial process from observers who are at once detached and engaged. Among the most important of these collections are the papers of Anthony Lewis and Fred P. Graham. The papers of journalists Joseph and Stewart Alsop are valuable for exploring as well such incidents as Franklin D. Roosevelt's court-packing plan, one of the most dramatic controversies in modern constitutional history. The research notes, memoranda, and interviews in the Alsop Papers are an exciting example of shoe-leather reporting at its best.

Throughout its many years of acquiring judicial collections, the Manuscript Division has been guided by Justice Byron R. White's challenge to gather materials for "a broadly conceived legal history . . . directed toward the study of all legal institutions and to their interaction with the larger society. . . ." 1

Joseph Keppler, illustrator. Our overworked Supreme Court. 1885 December 9. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.
"Our Overworked Supreme Court," reflects the growth of the court's docket from three hundred cases on the eve of the Civil War to more than thirteen hundred cases in 1885. Relief came six years later when Congress passed the circuit court of appeals act, which created the modern intermediate appellate court system. Of the justices represented in Keppler's cartoon, the Manuscript Division holds the papers of John Marshall Harlan and Morrison Remick Waite (back row, third and sixth from the left). Published in Puck, 9 December 1885.


  1. Byron R. White, "Introduction," in Law in American History, ed. Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1971), xi. Back to text