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

U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th, 8th, and 11th Circuits

The United States courts of appeals are made up of thirteen circuit courts, including the Fifth, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuit Courts. These courts are considered intermediate appellate courts with the Supreme Court ranking as the highest. The courts of appeals hear cases from federal district courts in their circuits.

In October 1981 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was divided into two circuits, the Fifth and the Eleventh. Before the Fifth Circuit’s division, judges of the court heard cases from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and the Panama Canal Zone (ended in 1982 with its transfer to Panama). After the split, cases originating in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas came under the Fifth Circuit’s jurisdiction, while the states of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia fell under the purview of the Eleventh Circuit. The Eighth Circuit Court hears cases originating in Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. This page contains descriptions of the papers of judges from the Fifth, Eighth, and Eleventh circuits held by the Manuscript Division.

Harry A. Blackmun Papers

When Harry Blackmun’s name began to circulate in regard to an appointment to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, the future Supreme Court justice did what he often did when confronted with a decision, he made a list. “Along with his thoughts, Blackmun picked up a yellow pad and listed the pros and cons of the decision,” his biographer Linda Greenhouse wrote. “By the time he finished, there were seventeen of each.” Blackmun juxtaposed positives such as “away from trivia,” “better use of my talents,” “a little travel,” “different kind of pressure and reduction of it,” and “service to U.S. and public,” against negatives like “possibly a terminal appointment,” “loss of excitement,” “loss of contact with important people,” loss of stature locally,” and “loneliness.”1

Official portraits of the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court: Justice Harry A. Blackmun. January 26, 1976. Library of Congress. Prints and Photographs Division.

Blackmun eventually accepted the appointment based on the expectation “that the appeals court would offer a low-stress, low visibility environment,” a viewpoint from which he was soon disabused. He would go on to write 217 opinions as judge on the Eight Circuit before ascending to the Supreme Court in 1970. In the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, and as demonstrated by the papers of fellow judges on the federal courts also in the Manuscript Division notably Frank M. Johnson, J. Skelly Wright, Carl McGowan, and Harold Leventhal among others, Blackmun joined the court of appeals during a “challenging time,” notes Greenhouse, “many areas of American law were in flux.”2

Appointed by President Richard M. Nixon to the court of appeals, Blackmun served 11 years (1959-1970). Blackmun’s papers are among the most used in the Manuscript Division, though more for his tenure on the Supreme Court than his time on the lower court. Yet, as Greenhouse points out the Minnesota jurist established practices during this period that at once established a template for his future service on the Supreme Court while also imbuing his papers from the court of appeals with special significance. “Before a case was argued, he would review the briefs submitted by the parties and any memos prepared by his law clerks. He would then dictate a memo to himself, summarizing the arguments and giving his preliminary responses. Offering his unvarnished personal reaction to the debates swirling around him, these notes are among the most valuable documents in the Blackmun case files.”3

The United States Court of Appeals series is divided into five subseries: Correspondence, Administrative File, Administrative Panel File, Case File, and Subject File. The Correspondence subseries, 1959-1970, includes incoming and outgoing letters relating mainly to Blackmun's personal interests and activities. During his time on the court, Blackmun presided over an array of cases including those focusing on issues of taxation, civil rights, labor, administrative, constitutional, and criminal law. Roughly a quarter of the cases before Blackmun dealt with tax related law, a subject in which Blackmun developed a particular expertise.

Of note, Justice Blackmun famously struggled with the issue of capital punishment during his career. Near the conclusion of his Supreme Court tenure, with the help of his former clerk Michelle Alexander, he determined that he would “no longer tinker with the machinery of death.” Researchers will find Blackmun’s earliest encounter with this issue in the court of appeals series perhaps most notably in the case Pope v. United States (1968). For more on the larger prison system, researchers might wish to review the case file for Jackson v. Bishop. Blackmun’s majority opinion was one of the first decisions to declare unconstitutional the use of corporal punishment in prison under the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment.

The largest subseries of the United States Court of Appeals series, providing roughly half of the material for this portion of Blackmun’s papers, is the Case File. Within each case folder, the material is arranged by type of material usually in the following order: slip opinions (when present), correspondence and memoranda, opinions, miscellaneous papers, oral argument notes, and clippings. Preceding the case files are ledgers that Blackmun maintained to track eighth circuit cases. Most of the case file correspondence is between Blackmun and his fellow judges, court clerks, and the staff of West Publishing Company.

The second largest subseries is the Subject File. It pertains largely to Blackmun's administrative and professional duties as a circuit judge and contains material documenting his appointment to the court, work with various judicial conferences, attendance at professional meetings, friendship with Warren E. Burger, recruitment of Minnesota students for Harvard University, and his committee service with the United Methodist Publishing House. Blackmun's speeches and writings while a circuit judge are also filed in this subseries.

  1. Linda Greenhouse, Becoming Justice Blackmun : Harry Blackmun's Supreme Court journey, New York : Times Books : H. Holt and Co., c2005. Back to text
  2. Linda Greenhouse, Becoming Justice Blackmun, 29. Back to text
  3. Linda Greenhouse, Becoming Justice Blackmun, 31. Back to text

The following collection title links to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. A link to the collection finding aid is included when available.

Frank M. Johnson Papers

Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Photograph of the Frank M. Johnson, Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, 15 Lee Street, Montgomery, Alabama. November 13, 2005. Carol M. Highsmith Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

“The dignity of the court has to be and must be maintained in order to have confidence of the people in the court,” Judge Frank M. Johnson told Bill Moyers in a 1980 interview found in his collection in the Manuscript Division. “You can’t operate the court like you do a three-ring circus. You can not permit anyone to unduly transgress on the authority of the court and still maintain its dignity …” From his position as judge on the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama (1955-1979) to his time on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (1979-1981) to his tenure on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (1981-1999 ) to his role as a member of the Temporary Emergency Court of Appeals (1972-1982), Johnson affected great change on Alabama, the South, and the nation on a variety of issues and policies.

Most known for his cases involving desegregation such as Browder v. Gayle (Montgomery Bus Boycott) and Williams v. Wallace (related to the March on Selma), Johnson also shaped reform in Alabama prisons (Pugh v. Locke and James v. Wallace) and mental institutions (Wyatt v. Stickney), which later influenced efforts nationally. Although regarded as a “law and order” jurist, Johnson paid great attention to the rights of the poor, mentally ill, and imprisoned, all of which is documented in the Frank M. Johnson Papers. In an address to the Human Rights Committee for the Alabama Prison System, whom he appointed to oversee state prison conditions, he stated: “[W]hen practices within a prison system result in the deprivation of basic elements of adequate medical treatment and care and deprivation of living conditions that humane concepts require being afforded even to animals, then, … such practices violate constitutional guarantees and federal courts must act to provide relief.” Much like the papers of Judge Gerhard Alden Gesell, Johnson's collection contains valuable materials for scholars focusing on the expansion and reform of the nation's prison system or, as some historians now refer to it, the carceral state.

Materials in the collection are robust and include dockets, case files, correspondence, memoranda, orders, briefs, motions, depositions, transcripts, opinions, interviews, reports, news clippings, and printed matter. Notably correspondence throughout the collection features discussion of legal issues and case law between lawyers, jurists, and other legal professionals as well as letters from the public regarding the same. Correspondents include Warren E. Burger, Emanuel Celler, Paul Bryant, Harry A. Blackmun, John C. Godbold, Ricahrd T. Rives, Walter Mondale, Huey Newton, John Doar, Earl Warren, Vernon E. Jordan, Robert F. Kennedy, and numerous other legal and political figures.

Of note for researchers focusing on energy policy, are Johnson’s papers pertaining to his work for the Temporary Emergency Court of Appeals from 1972 to 1982. The collection also contains a great deal of material relating to energy regulation specifically in relation to the Emergency Petroleum Act of 1973.

Finally, for scholars interested in true crime, Johnson presided over the death penalty appeals of serial killer Ted Bundy. These files are located in court of appeals case files for the Eleventh Circuit.


The following collection title links to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. A link to the collection finding aid is included when available.