The United States District Court
Prior to 1818
In 1789, Congress exercised its power under the Federal Constitution to establish lower federal courts by establishing a two-tiered court system below the Supreme Court. A District Court, presided over by a district court judge, was established for each state. Circuit Courts, with both Nisi Prius and Appellate power, were also established. The country was divided into three judicial circuits, designated as southern, middle and eastern. Pennsylvania was in the middle district. There were no circuit judges, but Justices of the Supreme Court and District Court Judges sat on the Circuit Courts. In 1801 the number of judicial circuits was increased to six, with Pennsylvania being assigned to the Third Circuit, where it has remained ever since.
Under the Act of 1789, provision was made for sessions of the district court and of the circuit court for the district of Pennsylvania to be held both in Philadelphia and in York, but in 1796 Congress decided that the sessions should be held only in Philadelphia.
The Judiciary Act of 1801 divided Pennsylvania into Eastern and Western districts, with sessions of the Eastern District to be held in Philadelphia and those of the Western District at Bedford. This Act was repealed in 1802 and the federal circuit and district courts continued to be held only in Philadelphia, as before, until 1818.
The Western District of Pennsylvania was established by the Act of April 20, 1818, which divided the Commonwealth into two judicial districts. The Western District consisted of the counties of Fayette, Greene, Washington, Allegheny, Westmoreland, Somerset, Bedford, Huntingdon, Centre, Mifflin, Clearfield, McKean, Potter, Jefferson, Cambria, Indiana, Armstrong, Butler, Beaver, Mercer, Crawford, Venango, Erie and Warren. The Act provided that the residue of the State should compose the Eastern District.
The Act of 1818 also authorized the President to appoint a District Judge for the Western District of Pennsylvania and provided for a salary of $1600 per year. In addition to its jurisdiction as a District Court, the District Court for the Western District was given all the Nisi Prius power of the Circuit Court within the District, but appeals from the District Court of the Western District were taken to the Circuit Court in the Eastern District. This was changed by the Act of May 15,1820, which, in effect, gave the District Court for the Western District all of the powers of a Circuit Court.
Originally, the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania held sessions only in Pittsburgh, but in May 1824, Congress altered the judicial districts in Pennsylvania by adding the counties of Susquehanna, Bradford, Tioga, Union, Northumberland, Columbia, Luzerne and Lycoming to the Western District. This Act also provided that the Court should hold two sessions every year at Williamsport, in addition to the sessions held at Pittsburgh.
In 1866, Congress provided that the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania should also begin holding sessions in Erie, Pennsylvania. The first session of the District Court in Erie was held in January 1867, with Judge Wilson McCandless presiding.
In 1901, the Middle District of Pennsylvania was created, removing from the Western District all of the counties which had been added to it by the Act of 1824 and in addition severing Huntingdon, Centre, Mifflin and Potter counties.
Most recently, in 1989 the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania acted upon a longstanding Congressional authorization and announced that it would hold sessions in Johnstown, Cambria County, with Judge D. Brooks Smith presiding.
After the Western District of Pennsylvania was established in 1818, President James Monroe appointed Jonathan H.Walker to be first Judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. The Act of 1818 called for the first session of the Court to be held in June 1818, but the Court did not get organized in time and the first session was held in Pittsburgh on December 7, 1818, in the Courthouse in Pittsburgh which then occupied the western half of Market Square. All sessions of the United States Courts held in Pittsburgh until 1841 were held in the Market Square Courthouse, for it was not until 1853 that court facilities were provided for in a Federal Building in Pittsburgh.
In 1841, the Federal Courthouse moved into the new State Courthouse which had been constructed on Grant's Hill, at the corner of Grant, Fourth and Ross Streets and in which Federal Courts were given space on the Second floor, along with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The first Federal Building in Pittsburgh was erected in 1853 at Fifth Avenue and Smithfield Street on the site of the present Park Building. Known variously as the "Custom House," "Pittsburgh Postoffice" and "Federal Government Building", this building was the first Federal home for the United States Courts in the Western District of Pennsylvania and sessions were held there until July 1891, when the courts were removed to the newly constructed United States Postoffice and Courthouse Building at Fourth Avenue and Smithfield Streets. Federal Courts were held at the Fourth Avenue Courthouse until November 7, 1934, when the present Courthouse at Grant Street and Seventh Avenue was opened.
The Federal Building and Post Office at Fourth Avenue and Smithfield Street has been razed, but many of the elegant decorative features and architectural details of the handsome old building have been preserved at various sites throughout the city. Much of the decorative ironwork and decorative carving that adorned the building can be seen at the headquarters of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation location at Station Square. The collection of remnants preserved by the Foundation includes beautifully carved Federal Eagles. Granite statutes of the Goddess of Justice are also on that site, just outside the Station Square Shops. A statue has also been preserved in the courtyard adjacent to the building that was formerly the "Edge", a restaurant and motel that overlooked the city from Mt. Washington.