Brooklyn’s Eastern District Federal Court: 150 Years

This Monday in the courthouse on Cadman Plaza East in Downtown Brooklyn, two Justices of the US Supreme Court, the Hon. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Hon. Sonia Sotomayor, both of whom hold honorary degrees from Brooklyn Law School (Ginsburg receiving hers in 1987 and Sotomayor being awarded her Degree of Juris Doctor Honoris Causa in 2001), attended a ceremony celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Eastern District of New York (EDNY). The actual date of the first EDNY court session was March 22, 1865 after President Abraham Lincoln, on Feb. 25, 1865, signed the bill creating the Eastern District. Monday’s celebration looked back at the humble beginnings of the court, noting the progress towards diversity and the application of justice over the years. It also looked at a district that has become one of the most respected and revered federal courts in the country.

The courthouse for the Eastern District has occupied several sites over the years: its first session convened in a room at Brooklyn City Court; it then moved to two separate locations on Montague Street and in 1891 settled in the backyard of 40 Clinton St. At one point the court rented space in the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle Building …for overflow Chambers and offices,” noted a History of the United States Court for the Eastern District of New York, prepared by the Federal Bar Association of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
In her remarks, Justice Ginsburg, Brooklyn-born and an alumna of James Madison High School, said “The birth of this court, 150 years ago, is cause for celebration…In its early years…the court only had one judge.” For the first 46 years of the district’s existence, one judge handled all of the court’s business, and in 1910, a second judge was added to assist with the caseload. It was not until a high rate of litigation during and after World War I when more judgeships were created for the Eastern District.

The second female to sit as a justice in the highest court of the land, Ginsburg remarked on the diversity of the Eastern District bench, mentioning the first “woman to break that barrier in the Eastern District, Reena Raggi, in 1987.” Raggi now sits on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Ginsburg stated “For me, it is an incredible dream come true that the majority of the [EDNY] court’s active judges are women and that the composition of this bench mirrors the diversity of the communities the court serves.” There are currently 12 female district judges serving the Eastern District of New York,  all in active and not in senior status. Justice Sotomayor did not speak at Monday’s event but will officiate a naturalization ceremony in October to commemorate the court’s anniversary.Providing hope for another 150 years of the Eastern District, Ginsburg concluded, “May the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of New York continue to flourish, serving all of the people … [and] to serve and [provide] justice that is equal and accessible to all…We can’t let our history die with those who know it.”

Monday’s ceremonies included remarks by Former Chief Judge Jack B. Weinstein, who recalled sitting on his parents’ shoulders as they watched Civil War veterans ride down Grand Central Parkway in the 1920s. He said: “Over the years, our judges and magistrate judges, despite a huge increase in number, have continued to share a deep affection—and an unwavering desire to provide the rule of law to all our people in this district.”

For a history of the Eastern District, see in the BLS Library the short 95 page book titled To Administer Justice on Behalf of All the People: The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York 1965-1990 by Jeffrey B. Morris (Call # KF8755.N49 M67 1992).