The Court of Courts

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Everett Collection
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg leaving the Southern District Court in Manhattan after they were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage, August 1950

Later this year, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York will celebrate its 225th anniversary. Sometimes called the “Mother Court” because it is older than even the US Supreme Court, the Southern District is, with fifty sitting judges, the largest and busiest federal trial court in the country. It has long enjoyed a reputation for excellence that may be almost as great as its judges (of which this writer is one) would like to imagine.

But it was not always so. In its early years, the court, even though encompassing the entire state of New York (its jurisdiction now extends only to the southern counties), was largely limited in its jurisdiction to maritime matters, as well as to minor criminal offenses for which the punishment was “not over thirty stripes.” The business of the court was sufficiently sparse that its first judge, James Duane, did not decide a single case until six months after the court had opened for business.

Although the court’s substantive jurisdiction was not much broadened for the next one hundred years, the great expansion of maritime commerce (the too-often-forgotten engine of much of this nation’s growth) and its increased concentration in the port of New York considerably enlarged the court’s importance. In addition, while most nonmaritime federal cases originated in what were then called the “circuit courts,” the Supreme Court justices who were supposed to “ride” from town to town with the district court judges on these circuits were increasingly conspicuous by their absence, rendering the Southern District judge the effective trial judge of all federal cases in New York City and its immediate environs.

By the time this de facto jurisdiction was made de jure as a result of congressional acts passed between 1891 and 1911, the Southern District Court had already come to be regarded as first among equals so far as federal trial courts were concerned. Doubtless this was largely a function of New York’s prominence as the nation’s financial and commercial center. But the appointment to the court of such luminaries as Learned Hand (appointed in 1909) and his cousin Augustus Hand (appointed in 1914) helped to burnish its reputation.

Which is not to say that the court’s early work may wholly escape criticism. In the pre–Civil War period, for example, the court’s attitude toward slavery was equivocal. As elsewhere in the North, New York’s merchant marine was not above participating in the by-then-illegal slave trade when the profits so tempted, and, while it was in the Southern District that the only death sentence for slave trading was carried out, rather more common were rulings that chose to ignore the evidence of numerous chains and manacles that indicated the likelihood that the “cargo” at issue would have consisted of enchained human beings.

In any …

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