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

U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

District courts are federal trial courts that preside over civil and criminal cases under their jurisdiction. Appeals of their decisions appear before the court of appeals for their circuit. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia is a federal trial court that hears civil and criminal cases for the District of Columbia. Because of its location in the nation's capital and its authority over cases involving federal agencies, the Court is considered one of the most important venues in the country and has heard many cases with political implications such as the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate scandal, and the Iran Contra scandal. Appeals for the Court are heard by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. This page contains descriptions of the papers of judges from this court held by the Manuscript Division.

Gerhard Alden Gesell Papers

In spring of 1969, Gerhard A. Gesell had only recently been appointed to the District Court for the District of Columbia, when controversy fell into his lap. Following the more famous unrest of 1968, in March of 1969, college students in the District once again unleashed protests on local university campuses. School administrators at Howard University and George Washington University demanded the U. S. Attorney enforce an order issued earlier by the court to end student demonstrations. Gesell concurred and requested that the government “present an appropriate order to me in chambers that day.”1

Ewing and Harris, photographer. Gerhard Gesell. ca. 1940. Harris and Ewing Collection. Harris and Ewing Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Deputy Attorney General Richard Kleindienst and Assistant Attorney General William Ruckelhaus arrived around 5 p.m. with a “brief form of order finding the rioters in contempt and directing the injunction be implemented,” but the order lacked detail. Gesell asked simply, “how is this Order going to be enforced?” to which Kleindienst responded, “most respectfully, that is none of your business.”2 Gesell recorded this exchange in his unpublished memoir, “My Jealous Mistress,” found in the Gerhard Alden Gesell Papers in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress.

Never one to suffer fools and with his suspicions piqued, Gesell answered, “You might be right, but if I don’t know I won’t sign the Order.” According to Gesell, Kleindienst turned “red in the face” and proceeded to huddle with Ruckelhaus. Debate ensued and Gesell held his ground eventually forcing the government to adopt his recommendations.3 Researchers can read much more about the exchange in Gesell's memoir, but the larger point stands: the Gerhard Gesell Papers contain a wealth of material relating to national security, Washington D.C., and the criminal justice system, to identify only a few areas of interest.

Few judicial collections contain more material about political scandal than the papers of Gerhard Alden Gesell. Appointed to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Judge Gesell presided over numerous cases involving political intrigue, corruption, and malfeasance including Watergate (United States v. Ehrlichman, United States v. Chapin, United States v. Mitchell, Nader v. Bork), the Pentagon Papers (United States v. Washington Post Company), and the Iran Contra Scandal (United States v. North and United States v. Poindexter). Especially during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the district court, in part due to the work of Gesell and the scandals wrought by Watergate, would "come of age" even eclipsing the court of appeals for a time in its visibility and influence. "More than any other American Court, the District Court demonstrated that the judiciary would not flinch from making the separation of power work," argued historian Jeffrey Brandon Morris in 2001.4

In the more famous Pentagon Papers case, United States v. Washington Post, Gesell refused to issue a stay on the publication of the document by the newspaper. After an initial conference with the Post regarding the newspaper possibly delaying publication, which its publishers refused, Gesell issued a short 600 word oral opinion juxtaposing the two conflicting issues at the heart of the case which represented "a raw question of preserving the freedom of the press as it confronts the efforts of the Government to impose a prior restraint on publication of essentially historical data." He denied the stay and in doing so became the only judge of 28 in the Second and D.C. circuits who presided over Pentagon Papers litigation to refuse granting even a temporary stay. The court of appeals reversed the ruling by a 2-1 vote with Judge J. Skelly Wright penning a stinging dissent (see the J. Skelly Wright Papers) tossing the case back to Gesell for an evidentiary hearing that did little to change Gesell's earlier ruling. The judge delivered his opinion from the bench noting that in order for a democracy to function properly, it depended "on the informed will of the majority, and it is the purpose and effect of the First Amendment to expose to the public the maximum amount of information on which sound judgement can be made by the electorate." No immediate threat existed that justified the stay. "You have twenty minutes," he told government prosecutors. "I am sure they [the Court of Appeals] are waiting for you upstairs." On its second hearing, this time en banc, the court of appeals affirmed Gesell's opinion pushing the issue to the Supreme Court which eventually upheld Gesell's opinion.5

Gesell’s archive also serves as a window into the culture and local politics of Washington, D.C., from the urban unrest of the late 1960s, documented in the case files for George Washington University. v. Mann and Howard University. v. Abel, to life in the capital during the New Deal and post-1945 period, represented in his unpublished memoir, “My Jealous Mistress.” Featured in his correspondence from 1941 to 1967, prior to Gesell's ascension to the court, are files which document his time at the influential law firm of Covington & Burling. In addition, the Gesell papers also contain research material related to Northern Virginia as the judge owned a farm in Loudon County. These files chronicle Gesell's management of the farm, including expenses, profit, revenue, workers, and records related to regional development.

Gesell’s sentencing files provide a unique compendium of local demographics that simultaneously burgeon the collection's value for local history and will aid historians who study the history of the prison system, sometime referred to as the carceral state. Serving as a record of every person sentenced by Gesell, the file reflects the vast economic and demographic changes in the District of Columbia over a twenty year period and contains valuable social data about families, crime, policing, municipal politics, the judicial system, and race relations. Some access restrictions apply to the sentencing files. Consult the Ask-a-librarian form or the Manuscript Division webpage for more information.

  1. Ryan Reft, "Federal Courts, Judge Gerhard Gesell, and the Security State," In Custodia Legis Blog, September 19, 2019. Back to text
  2. Ibid. Back to text
  3. Ibid; Jeffrey Brandon Morris, Calmly to Poise the Scales of Justice: A History of the Courts of the District of Columbia Circuit (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2001), 237. Back to text
  4. Morris, Calmly to Poise the Scales of Justice, 258-261. Back to text
  5. Morris, Calmly to Poise the Scales of Justice, 260-263. 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.

Harold H. Greene Papers

Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. D.C. Court of Appeals, Indiana Ave. between 6th and 7th St., NW, Washington, D.C. 2010. Carol M. Highsmith Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Harold H. Greene embarked on his 45-year career as a government lawyer and judge in 1958 when he was appointed Head of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Appeal and Research Section of the Civil Rights Division. He would eventually ascend to the federal judiciary in 1978, presiding as judge for nearly two decades before assuming senior status in 1995. The bulk of his papers spans the years 1951-2001.

“The Department of Justice became much more active in civil rights matters,” Judge Greene noted in a 1992 oral history interview that can be found in the The Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit Oral History Project Collection, also located in the Manuscript Division. “The operating section, so to speak, the voting rights section became very active in investigating voting fraud and voting discrimination in the South, Mississippi, Alabama, and so on. The Appeals and Research Section, namely me, with some of my young troops, was to make sure that what they did was legally justified.” Files related to Greene’s work on civil rights for the DOJ, consisting of briefs and correspondence, can be found in the Department of Justice series. According to Greene, he and his colleagues were at the front line of litigating and enforcing civil rights. “The attorney general would call at 5 o’clock in the evening and say, ‘Tomorrow morning we’re going to try to integrate the University of Mississippi. Get us a memo on what we’re likely to do, what we can do if the governor sends the National Guard there – and I want to have it on my desk at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning." The series also includes his contributions to the drafting of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Greene to the District of Columbia Court of General Sessions in 1965 and named him Chief Judge a year later. Following the 1970 Court Reorganization Act, the Court of General Sessions became the District of Columbia Superior Court, tasked with presiding over cases pertaining to local jurisdiction specifically, leaving all federal cases in the District of Columbia District Circuit Court. Greene’s papers highlight this transition and his work in consolidating the court’s work. Along with Judge John Garrett Penn who also served with Greene on the Superior Court and whose papers are also located in the Manuscript Division, both legal and urban historians will find the collection valuable for its insights into local jurisprudence, politics, and economics of the city during the 1970s, particularly Greene’s work in spearheading the court’s reorganization. During his tenure on the Superior Court, Greene ruled in numerous cases including the influential Edwards v. Habib, which established that a tenant cannot be evicted for requesting housing code enforcement. Consisting of correspondence, opinions, and orders, and reports, the series documents the reorganization as well as the various issues afflicting the city during the period including anti-war demonstrations, the 1968 riots, and the pervasiveness of drug use in the late 1960s and early 1970s among other issues.

In 1978, President Carter appointed Greene to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia where he served until his death in January 2000. Greene presided over several major cases including the anti-trust break up of AT&T (United States v. AT&T) and proceedings related to John Poindexter and the Iran-Contra Affair (United States v. John Poindexter). Much of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia series focuses on the former and contains correspondence, orders, and general case materials. Many observers suggest that the eventual settlement of the case influenced later cases involving telecommunications and anti-trust law, most notably United States v. Microsoft, over which Judge Harry T. Edwards presided and whose papers are also housed in the Manuscript Division.

The remainder of the Harold H. Greene Papers pertains mostly to his Writings File, which consists of articles, speeches, congressional testimonies written or given by Greene, and research materials related to his various speaking engagements. Greene often spoke at legal symposiums and frequently served as a guest lecturer at numerous law schools while also presiding over moot courts.

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.

John Garrett Penn Papers

Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Courtroom at the historic E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse which houses the U.S. District Court and U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Washington, D.C. December 2, 2012. Carol M. Highsmith Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

After several years of working in the Justice Department’s Tax Division, John Garrett Penn had begun to think about moving to greener pastures. “I’d begun to look outside Justice, thinking I could make more money in the private sector,” he told an interviewer in 1997. “Atlantic Richfield was recruiting me, and I’d pretty much committed myself to heading up their legal office in Chicago.”6

Then to his surprise the assistant deputy attorney general contacted him notifying Penn that President Richard M. Nixon wanted to establish a new court system for the District of Columbia. Up until 1970, criminal cases were heard in federal court. Under the leadership of Harold H. Greene, whose papers are also housed in the Manuscript Division, Washington D.C's Superior Court would be reformed to hear many of the local criminal cases then litigated in the United States Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit. Judge Penn would be among the first wave of judges to participate in the new system. "It was a challenge to build this new court system from the ground up. Ten of us set up shop over on G Street where they are building the new arena [what is today the Capitol One Arena."; he reflected years later.7

Judge Penn served on the Washington D.C. Superior Court from 1970 to 1979 at which point President Jimmy Carter promoted him to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia where he served until his death in 2007. Though the collection spans the years from 1918 to 2007, much of the material is concentrated between 1971 and 2007. His jurisprudence for both courts can be found in the John Garrett Penn Papers located in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.

For legal scholars, urbanists, and historians of the prison system, sometimes referred to as the carceral state, the Superior Court File series, 1970-1979, serves as a window into local legal processes, crime, and the state of the city during the 1970s. Comprised of bench books containing Penn’s handwritten notes of cases heard by him, and a file of orders, opinions and other rulings, the series documents civil, criminal, family, and tax matters unfolding in the nation’s capital during this period. Two cases in particular provide substantive insights into Penn’s jurisprudence during his tenure on the Superior Court: Kelly v. District of Columbia (property tax) and Robert J. Sherman (a medical malpractice abortion case).

The United States District Court File, 1918-2007, focuses on his time on the circuit court from 1979-2007 including his service as chief judge from 1992 to 1997. Judge Penn remained on the court after 1997 but like many older judges worked a reduced caseload. The district court files include fewer cases but in greater depth. Perhaps the most notable example is Griffin v. United States, the suit in which Richard Nixon’s estate sought to recover the value of White House records confiscated by the federal government following the Watergate scandal. Consisting of bench books (which include Penn’s handwritten notes on the legal matters before him), cases, offices file and opinions, orders and other rulings, the series features major cases involving political corruption represented by the ABSCAM case (United States v. Jenrette), involving John W. Jenrette, as well as cases related to gun regulation as documented by suits brought by victims of the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt in an effort to recover damages from both John Hinkley and the gun manufacturing industry.

Penn’s administrative and professional duties also appear in the collection in the United States District Court File. The majority of this series focuses on his work with the Judicial Conference of the District of Columbia Circuit and the Judicial Conference of the United States. In addition, the judge’s findings on a diverse set of issues related to civil and criminal matters under the jurisprudence of federal jurisdiction and originating in the District of Columbia are also documented in orders, opinions, and other rulings in the series’ chronological file.

Further insights into both proceedings of the superior and district courts can be found in Judge Penn’s correspondence files which are comprised of incoming letters, memoranda, postcards and printed email to Penn from colleagues, friends, family, court staff, and the public. The bulk of this correspondence deals with Penn’s activities as a judge on the two courts.

  1. John Garrett Penn, "Legends in the Law: John Garrett Penn" External, Washington Lawyer, August/September 1997. Back to text
  2. Ibid. Back to text

John J. Sirica Papers

Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Aerial view of the infamous Watergate Hotel, Washington, D.C. Between 1980 and 2006. Carol M. Highsmith Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In February 1975 Judge John J. Sirica of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia received an unsolicited signed copy of Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House with a favorable inscription by its author William Safire. Although Safire had been critical of him, Sirica wrote the following in his diary: “I felt better when I read the inscription. He has his job – I have mine and you can’t please all the people. I guess reporters have the same problem – they either get praised or criticized.”8 Safire’s praise came as result of the judge’s role in presiding over several cases integrally connected to the Watergate scandal that engulfed Richard M. Nixon’s administration and eventually forced the 37th president of the United States to resign from office.

Sirica proved an unlikely hero during the Watergate debacle. "Conservative and mercurial, neither scholarly nor intellectually agile, Sirica had been on of the trial judges most often reversed by the Court of Appeals," wrote Jeffrey Brandon Morris in 2001. "He was not a first rate case manager nor a particularly self-confident judge. Now he would be responsible for a case with the highest profile imaginable, where any misstep might prove disastrous, both legally and politically." According to Morris, he confided in two colleagues in particular, Matthew McGuire and Gehard Gesell, the latter's papers can also be found in the Manuscript Division and once commented that Sirica, "could ignore advice as readily as he would accept it and always did what he thought best." Though Sirica endured criticism from some quarters for overly aggressive questioning of witnesses and "draconian" sentencing (much of which was eventually reduced), he largely emerged with an enhanced reputation. As chief judge, Sirica had assigned and controlled nearly all Watergate cases that came through the district court. Between January 1972 and January 1975, the list of Watergate related proceedings in the district court ran 36 pages and comprised forty seven criminal and 36 civil cases along with 19 other miscellaneous proceedings. [N]o judge in American history has for so long responsibility for litigation which repeatedly posed issues of the gravest political and constitutional significance, or so often had to confront occasions on which a misstep could have brought grief," observed Morris decades later. Sirica had realized the President's complicity earlier than most, worked well with special prosecutors, and avoided providing defendants with any legitimate claims for appeal while the law he established around the White House tapes was both "solid and shrewd." "He was not the wisest, the most astute, the quickest witted, the most balanced of trial judges," concluded Morris. "Yet to him came the greatest test ever demanded of an American trial judge. That test he met with courage, humility, and wisdom."9

At the time, Sirica recorded his thoughts in his diary, acquired by the division in 2019. He disagreed with Nixon's pardon believing President Ford had "prevented the American people from ever learning the truth about this sad affair. I think he has made a terrible mistake and has set a dangerous precedent.” As to the whole affair itself? Sirica noted that public service in America required adherence to the nation and its legal system and not an individual. "If at the end of the long road of criminality, these men go to prison, there will be a simple lesson for all who hold a government office in this country: Their ultimate loyalty must be not to Presidents but to the law.”10

The bulk of the John J. Sirica Papers span the years 1932-1986 with a concentrated majority focusing on the period from 1957 to 1986. Watergate particularly serves as a predominant focus whether it is cases directly involving the 1972 break-in and burglary of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate apartment complex such as United States v. Liddy and United States v. Mitchell or related cases involving the subpoena of documents and tapes from President Nixon and the transfer of grand jury reports to the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee (In re Grand Jury Subpoena Duces Tecum to Nixon and In re Report and Recommendation of June 5, 1972 Grand Jury Concerning Transmission of Evidence to the House of Representatives). These materials, made up largely of photocopies of original documents rather than original items, consist of correspondence and memoranda largely between Sirica, fellow judges, lawyers, the court clerk, and staff. Opinions, orders, motions, briefs, and transcripts comprise much of the legal documents. Sirica’s aforementioned diary, quoted above and available to researchers upon request, also includes commentary by the judge regarding the cases themselves and his role in them as well as insights about Washington, D.C.’s social and political culture from 1973 to 1975.

Despite the collection’s focus on the Watergate Affair, during his nearly three decades on the court, Sirica presided over a variety of legal issues also represented in the collection such as antitrust matters, constitutional law, civil rights, and government regulations among other issues. However, many of these files are sparsely populated and at times contain only one or two items with two notable exceptions: anti-trust cases related to electrical equipment and Riss & Company v. Association of American Railroads as well as the murder trial of Robert Louis Ammidown (United States v. Ammidown).

The collection also includes Sirica’s bench books, which contain his handwritten-notes on those cases which appeared before his court spanning the years from 1957 to 1983 as well as documents relating to his administrative and professional duties from 1954 to 1986.

Sirica’s correspondence files include legal and political leaders of the period such as Tom C. Clark, Sam J. Ervin Jr., J. Edgar Hoover, Leon Jaworski, Frank M. Johnson, John V. Lindsay, James W. McCord Jr., Richard M. Nixon, and E. Barrett Prettyman among others. Celebrities Norman Lear and Frank Sinatra also appear in Sirica’s correspondence as does former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey with whom Sirica trained as a fighter as a youth.

  1. John J. Sirica, diary entry, February 24, 1975, unprocessed, John J. Sirica Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Back to text
  2. Jeffrey Brandon Morris, Calmly to Poise the Scales of Justice: A History of the Courts of the District of Columbia Circuit (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2001), 265, 264, 278. Back to text
  3. John J. Sirica, diary entries, August 8, 1974 and February 24, 1975, unprocessed, John J. Sirica Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. 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.