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The Federal Paper Chase: Judges' Papers in the Manuscript Division

This guide provides assistance in using the personal papers of federal district and appellate judges found in manuscript collections of the Library of Congress documenting legal, urban, carceral, and cultural history.


Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. East corridor, Great Hall. Ceiling mosaic representing Law and naming Americans distinguished in law: Shaw, Taney, Marshall, Story, Gibson, Pinckney, Kent, Hamilton, Webster, Curtis. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. 2007. Carol M. Highsmith Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress preserves, arranges, and makes available for research the personal papers and organizational records of historical significance that have been acquired by the Library. This guide highlights the Manuscript Division's collections of federal lower court judges of the United States circuit courts of appeal and federal district courts (non-Supreme Court collections, e.g. non-SCOTUS).

Federal Court Overview

Although the Supreme Court has the greatest authority in the federal court system, the circuit courts and district courts play a vital role in federal law. The United States courts of appeals consist of thirteen appellate courts that rank below the Supreme Court. A court of appeals hears lawsuits from the district courts in its circuit and decisions appealed from federal administrative agencies. There are ninety-four federal judicial districts that are organized into twelve regional circuits. Each circuit has a court of appeals. The thirteenth court is the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit which hears specialized cases pertaining to patent law and decisions made by the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims. While court of appeals cases are decided by panels of judges, the U.S. district courts are trial courts that have a presiding judge and a jury who decides a case. District courts hear both civil and criminal matters.

Decisions adjudicated by appellate and district courts often reach the Supreme Court. The papers of judges of these lower courts provide researchers with greater context regarding the legal issues that have shaped not only judicial history, but the larger nation. Many of the collections feature bench books, dockets, diaries, case files, and correspondence related to various legal proceedings that reach federal courts.

Beyond Legal History

Because judges often worked in other capacities during their lifetime, several collections touch upon metropolitan histories in areas such as the regions of the Mid-Atlantic and the South. Also represented are files pertaining to judicial conferences, which provide insight into circuit policy and legal procedures. These papers are valuable because they provide a window into legal, urban, and cultural history along with insights into the burgeoning prison industrial systems sometimes referred to by historians as the carceral state.


Due to their time on federal courts prior to their appointment to the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS), the papers of several SCOTUS justices appear in the guide as well, however these entries focus on their pre-SCOTUS service particularly in regard to their work as a judge. Researchers interested in the SCOTUS portion of their career, should consult with reference staff in the reading room and the specialist responsible for overseeing the Manuscript Division's legal collections.

Arrangement of Collections

The guide is arranged by type of court and therein alphabetically by the name of judge. Each entry contains an overview of a collection and highlights its strengths and unique features. Each entry includes links to catalog records for an individual collection. On each catalog record, find more information about the collection. Many of these collections have a finding aid linked from the record. The finding aid provides a description of the content and arrangement of the collection. Information about Searching Finding Aids is available on the Search Tips page of this guide.

A few collections in this guide list access restrictions. Many of them, however, are available for research and include restrictions for only a small part of the collection. Collections not available online are accessible in the Manuscript Reading Room.

Attention: All researchers are advised to contact the Manuscript Reading Room prior to visiting. Many collections are stored off-site, or may have access restrictions, and advance notice is needed to retrieve these items for research use. Researchers interested in consulting any of the division's collections are strongly encouraged to write the Manuscript Reading Room via the Ask a Librarian form or email at [email protected] to inquire about the status of collections of interest.