« More Sad News: David Baldus, RIP | Main | More on Brady »

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The District of the District of Columbia??

This has to go down as the silliest distraction in the history of legal writing (and boy if that isn't saying something), but for entirely insignificant reasons, I've recently had to rehash one of the stupidest debates we ever had during my law journal days--what the proper name / citation form of the D.C. district court should be. And blogging isn't worth it if I can't share the silliness of my distractions, right?

Let's start with the obvious: The court refers to itself as the "United States District Court for the District of Columbia." In other words, the U.S. District Court for a place, i.e., the District of Columbia. But the South Carolina district court isn't the "United States District Court for South Carolina"; rather, it's the "United States District Court for the District of South Carolina," "D.S.C." in Bluebook terms. So, in the name of the D.C. district court, the second word "District" is serving two distinct purposes--one to refer to the judicial district, and one to refer to part of the name of the judicial district. Indeed, the Bluebook itself recognizes this, since the jurisdictional abbreviation is "D.D.C.," not "D.C." And 28 U.S.C. § 132(a) provides that "There shall be in each judicial district a district court which shall be a court of record known as the United States District Court for the district."

So should the D.C. federal district court instead be named (and known as) the "U.S. District Court for the [Judicial] District of [Place] the District of Columbia"? Or should we drop the first "D." from the jurisdictional identifier for the (properly named) U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia? The fate of humanity itself may rest in the balance...

Posted by Steve Vladeck on June 14, 2011 at 04:51 AM in Steve Vladeck | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The District of the District of Columbia??:


I don't think you can drop the "D." For starters, wouldn't dropping the "D." identify the Court as being the District of Columbia Court of Appeals?

Even beyond that, the DC District Court has what can only be called a tangled history, which is worth being mindful of in this inquiry. After the creation of a District of the Potomac in the short-lived Judiciary Act of 1801 (of the "Midnight Judges" fame), Congress created the both the U.S. District and Circuit Courts for the District of Columbia (not to be confused with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeal) as trial courts in 1802. Although Congress abolished these courts in 1863, there's some useful reason to distinguish in scholarly sources. Lexis counts 2,630 opinions from this Court prior to 1863, including a large number of early patent cases...while surely obscure, distinction is worthwhile.

Also, as a less esoteric reason, It's useful to distinguish between the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Columbia.

Posted by: Zvi Rosen | Jun 15, 2011 6:50:07 PM

Orin presents a convincing argument, but if you're predisposed to the D.C. label, I think the place to challenge it would be 132(a). The label given there is "United States District Court for the district". So the substitution becomes [Name of the district] for [the district] in the template. Therefore, the question is what the name of the judicial district for D.C. is.

In the naming scheme, "[judicial] District" seems to serve as a way to distinguish which "Virginia" &c is being talked about. We don't call it the "United States District Court for the Western District of the Commonwealth of Virginia," for instance, because the [judicial] District doesn't really relate to the Commonwealth, except incidentally by boundaries. By similar reasoning, it would seem that the [judicial] District of Columbia doesn't relate to the [governmental] District of Columbia, except by boundaries. That would seem to suggest that the proper name for "the district" in 132(a) is the [judicial] District of Columbia.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Jun 15, 2011 3:06:55 AM

For Bluebook purposes, D.D.C. distinguishes the Article III trial court from the local D.C. supreme court (though that distinction might otherwise be obvious from the reporter abbreviation).

Posted by: Scott Dodson | Jun 14, 2011 2:08:10 PM

Hmm, this ends up being pretty interesting, in a counting-angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin sense. I think I go with D.D.C.

Article I of the Constitution sets up a region known as a "District" that has nothing to do with judicial districts. Specifically, Article I allowed Congress to create “such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, [to] become the Seat of the Government of the United States.” In 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, giving the basic location of the new District but letting President Washington figure out the details. The new area was referred to as the “District of Columbia” or “the territory of Columbia.” The name “Columbia” was used because at the time it was a popular name for the colonies of the New World (which also explains the name of Columbia University, formerly King’s College).

Importantly, making this "district" its own federal district for judicial purposes wasn't obvious. For example, the Judiciary Act of 1801 set up a District of Potomac that included the territory of “Columbia” together with parts of Virginia and Maryland. The new district was set up by Section 21 of the Judiciary Act of 1801:

And a new district shall be established, in the districts of Maryland and Virginia, to consist of the territory of Columbia, of all that part of the district of Maryland, which lies west and southwest of the river Patuxent, and of the western branch thereof, and south of the line which divides the county of Montgomery in the last mentioned district, from the county of Frederick, and of a line to be drawn from the termination of the last mentioned line, a northeast course to the western branch of the Patuxent; and of all that part of the district of Virginia, which lies north of the river Rappahannock, and east of the line which divides the counties of Fauquier and Loudon, in the last mentioned district from the counties of Fairfax, Prince William, and Stafford; which new district shall be called the district of Potomac, and a district court in and for the same, shall be holden at Alexandria, by the district judge of the district of Maryland, on the first Tuesday in April, and the first Tuesday in October, in each and every year.

The District of Potomac didn’t last long, as the Judiciary Act of 1801 was repealed by Congress a year later. I don’t know of any opinions by that court that were published, although there’s a reference to the court in passing in the Reporter’s summary of the procedural history of United States v. Nourse, 31 U.S. 470, 480 (1832) (referring to “[t]he answer of the United States of America, to a bill of injunction filed against them in the district court of the United States for the district of Potomac, by Joseph Nourse, late register of the treasury of the United States.”).

For most of U.S. history, of course, Congress made the "District of Columbia" its own judicial district. This is codified today at 28 U.S.C. 88, which states, "The District of Columbia constitutes one judicial district." In this text, the "District" in the "District of Columbia" refers to the Article I District, not the Article III district. Thus, for example, 28 U.S.C. 110 states that "New Jersey constitutes one judicial district." Next, 28 U.S.C. 132(a) then tells us what to call them: There shall be in each judicial district a district court which shall be a court of record known as the United States District Court for the district."

I would think that the best reading of Section 88 and Section 132(a) together is that the formal name of the the U.S. District Court set up by 28 U.S.C. 88 should be the United States District Court for the District of the District of Columbia. If so, D.D.C. makes the most sense. Further, using "D.D.C." avoids confusion with the D.C. Court of Appeals, which presently gets the "D.C." label and yet is a totally different court.

Cutting against that is the fact that the Court just calls itself the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. But I think that's just to avoid the awkwardness of the extra "District," the significance of which is technical and has largely been lost. So on the whole I would go with D.D.C.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jun 14, 2011 11:30:04 AM

Steve, after the infamous "psychometrically invalid" Bluebook exam of 2003, you are estopped for life from questioning the Bluebook's wisdom.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Jun 14, 2011 5:43:53 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.