District of Columbia Court Records

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This entry was originally written by Johni Cerny in Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
The District of Columbia Family History Research series.
History of the District of Columbia
District of Columbia Vital Records
Census Records for the District of Columbia
Background Sources for the District of Columbia
District of Columbia Maps
District of Columbia Land Records
District of Columbia Probate Records
District of Columbia Court Records
District of Columbia Tax Records
District of Columbia Cemetery Records
District of Columbia Church Records
District of Columbia Military Records
District of Columbia Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
District of Columbia Archives, Libraries, and Societies
District of Columbia Immigration
African Americans of the District of Columbia
District of Columbia County Resources


Prior to 1801, land ceded by Maryland, which later became the district’s Washington County, was under Prince George’s and Montgomery county jurisdiction. The land originally belonging to Virginia consisted of Fairfax County and later Alexandria County. People living in those areas came under those counties’ jurisdiction until the district was created.

The District of Columbia’s court system began in 1801 with the creation of the U.S. Circuit Court and the U.S. District Court of Potomac and the District of Columbia. A criminal court was added in 1838.

The U.S. Circuit Court, which had jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters, took over the functions previously performed by the Virginia and Maryland county courts. It also had appellate jurisdiction over the Orphans’ Courts in the District counties of Washington and Alexandria. This court’s records, dating 1801 to 1863, pertaining to law, appellate, and criminal cases (to 1838) include docket books, case papers, bonds to secure release of debtors, and grand jury lists. Chancery or equity functions of this court include divorce and other dockets, case files, and divorce records. Other records dealing with bankruptcy, manumissions and emancipations, fugitive slave case records, habeas corpus papers, and marriage licenses for 1837 to 1862 were also created here.

The U.S. District Court of the District of Potomac and the District of Columbia’s records for the pre-1863 period consist of minutes, the docket of admiralty cases, admiralty case files, and title pages of copyright works. This court’s records are housed in Record Group 21 at the Washington National Records Center, Suitland, Maryland (see page 12). Circuit court minutes (1801–63) are also on microfilm (NARA M1021).

The U.S. Criminal Court for the District of Columbia was established in 1838, and it replaced the circuit and district courts’ jurisdiction over criminal cases. Records produced by this court between 1838 and 1963 include dockets, minutes, proceedings, and case papers.

The U.S. Supreme Court of the District of Columbia was established in 1863 to replace all the circuit, district, and criminal courts of the District of Columbia. In 1936, its name was changed to the District Court of the United States for the District of Columbia. Records created by this court include minutes, dockets, and case papers in equity cases including adoptions, criminal, and bankruptcy, to name a few.

Records of naturalizations in the courts of the District of Columbia include indexes, naturalization records, copies of declarations of intention, and military naturalization records.

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