On the bench

Biographical Directory of Federal Judges

George Washington named 38 of them, 15 before the first of January 1790.

Barack Obama has named 201, 29 of them so far this year.

William Jefferson Clinton named the most — 372.

John_Jay_(Gilbert_Stuart_portrait).smThe youngest was 25 when he began his career, the oldest 104 when he ended his.1

The first woman didn’t join their ranks until 1934. The first African American, not until 1950.2

They are our United States federal judges — judges of the trial courts, called United States District Courts3; judges of the intermediate appeals courts, called the United States Circuit Courts of Appeal4; justices of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Over the years since the adoption of the Judiciary Act of 1789,5 there have been 3,457 men and women named to the federal bench — and just as there is a place for one-stop-biographical-shopping for members of Congress,6 there is a website where you can read about any member of your family who has ever been named by any President to serve as a federal judge.7

Or perhaps about the federal judge a member of your family appeared in front of as a plaintiff, as a defendant or (gasp) even as a lawyer.

It’s called the Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, 1789-present, and it’s described by the Federal Judicial Center this way:

The Biographical Directory of Federal Judges contains the service record of all judges presidentially appointed during good behavior who have served since 1789 on the U.S. District Courts, the U.S. Circuit Courts, the U.S. Courts of Appeals, the Supreme Court of the United States, and the following courts of special jurisdiction: the U.S. Court of International Trade; the U.S. Customs Court; the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals; the Court of Claims; and the Commerce Court.8

There, for example, you can read the biographical details of John Jay, pictured above, the first Chief Justice of the United States, born 12 December 1745 and died 17 May 1829. You can find out that he had both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from King’s College, now known as Columbia University, and that he resigned as Chief Justice after serving for six years.9

Or you can read the biographical details of that first woman appointed as a federal judge: Florence Ellinwood Allen, born 23 March 1884 and died 12 September 1966, appointed to the bench by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1934. She had both a B.A. and an M.A. from what was then Western Reserve University (and now Case Western) and a law degree from New York University, and had served as a prosecutor and a judge in Ohio — including on the Supreme Court of Ohio — before being named to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.10

Or you can read the biographical details of that first African American judge: William Henry Hastie, born 17 November 1904, died 14 April 1976, a graduate of Amherst with two law degrees from Harvard, who’d served as a government lawyer, Dean of the Howard University Law School and Governor of the Virgin Islands before he was appointed by Harry Truman to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in 1949.11

You can even read about one Judge named Law12 and one named Laws13 but not even one — darn it! — named Outlaw.

Good information, coupled with a great overall history of the federal courts, federal courthouses and more. A recommended site for anyone looking for solid information about those who have served as judges during the last 224 years.14


Image: Gilbert Stuart portrait of John Jay, 1794
National Gallery of Art via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Milestones of Judicial Service,” History of the Federal Judiciary, Federal Judicial Center (http://www.fjc.gov/ : accessed 28 Aug 2013).
  2. Ibid.
  3. District Courts,” Understanding the Federal Courts, United States Courts (http://www.uscourts.gov/Home.aspx : accessed 28 Aug 2013).
  4. Ibid., “Courts of Appeals.”
  5. An Act to establish the Judicial Courts of the United States,” 1 Stat. 73 (24 Sep 1789); digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html : accessed 28 Aug 2013).
  6. Judy G. Russell, “Congress through the years,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Aug 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 28 Aug 2013).
  7. There are federal judicial positions that don’t require a presidential appointment — the former U.S. Commissioners and today’s Magistrate Judges, for example. See generally ibid., “The Magistrate Judge,” posted 22 Mar 2013. Biographies of these judicial officers are not included on this site.
  8. About the Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, 1789-present,” History of the Federal Judiciary, Federal Judicial Center (http://www.fjc.gov/ : accessed 28 Aug 2013).
  9. Ibid., “Biographical Directory of Federal Judges: Jay, John.”
  10. Ibid., “Biographical Directory of Federal Judges: Allen, Florence Ellinwood.”
  11. Ibid., “Biographical Directory of Federal Judges: Hastie, William Henry.”
  12. Ibid., “Biographical Directory of Federal Judges: Law, Richard.”
  13. Ibid., “Biographical Directory of Federal Judges: Laws, Bolitha James.”
  14. A tip of the hat to reader Sameee whose private comment to the Congress members post nudged this post up the queue.
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6 Responses to On the bench

  1. Sam says:

    I must say, it’s pretty sleazy to censor my comment (“Congress through the years”) containing a link to this site and then use that link to create a blog post.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I tried to reach you by email after your comment to let you know I already had a post planned about this site. The email came back as undeliverable (you used a yahoo address and the error message read “554 delivery error: dd This user doesn’t have a yahoo.com account (sameeee@yahoo.com)”). Since I couldn’t reach you, I did the next best thing and (a) moved the post up in the queue and (b) acknowledged your comment in footnote 14. Best I could do under the circumstances.

  2. Mary Ann Thurmond says:

    Judy, in the paragraph from the Federal Judicial Center, my eye was caught by “…presidentially appointed during good behavior…”! Is that during a period of good behavior by the president or by the to-be-appointed judge? Does that mean that whoever this refers to has to be on good behavior only during the time of appointment? Sorry. I had to go back and read this three times before I was satisfied that I had read it correctly!? I just had to ask the question.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That really is an odd way of phrasing it, isn’t it? The judges serve during their good behavior (and can be impeached for misbehavior as a judge). The language is from Article III of the Constitution, section 1: “The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour…”

  3. Susan Winchester says:

    At least some of the federal circuits have an associated historical society. These websites have more detailed biographies. The one for the 10th Circuit is at http://www.10thcircuithistory.org/ I discovered this when I was researching my mother’s cousin, Frederick Morse Winner, to the best of my knowledge, the only federal judge to render a decision entirely in verse.

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