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About the Court


By Peter T. Dalleo, Clerk of Court, 2002

This project is an attempt to provide information for those interested in the history  of the district court in Delaware.  It is a complement to Carol Hoffecker's Federal Justice in the First State - A History of the United States District Court for the District of Delaware published in 1992.  Rather than attempt to analyze trends, the brief history offers glimpses about the court and about individuals from different agencies that interacted with it since its creation in 1789.

In 1789, the First Judiciary Act created the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware.  With New Jersey and Pennsylvania, it began as part of the Third Circuit, but later joined the Fourth Circuit; in 1866, the District of Delaware returned to the Third Circuit.  During its history, there have been 24 district court judges.  They have come from a variety of backgrounds: bankruptcy referees, magistrates, the U. S. Attorney's office, private practice, former law clerks, the state legislature, and one, the Hon. Leonard E. Wales, even served as clerk of court prior to joining the federal bench.

In November 1789, the Hon. Gunning Bedford, Jr. heard the first district court case and in May of 1792, the second.  Prior to 1857, judges could not rely on holding court in one locale.  They alternated between Wilmington, New Castle, and Dover, Delaware.  Therefore, they traveled by horseback and carriage to these towns where the U.S. Marshals Service rented space for them in courthouses and municipal and private facilities.  By 1857, the court had its first permanent home in the U. S. Custom House built in Wilmington at 6th & King streets. Judge Willard Hall, who served as district court judge from 1823 through 1871, had a total caseload of about 200 cases of which 96 were admiralty cases and the remainder criminal.  The court, when sitting "in admiralty," displayed a model ship above the bench.

In 1897, the court became part of the Post Office building at Ninth street between Orange and Shipley streets.  Forty years later, the court moved once again, this time to the federal building on Rodney Square that housed the U.S. Post Office and Custom House.   In the 1940s, the court added the second and then the third active judgeships, although the latter was not filled until the 1950s.   In 1971, a magistrate-judge joined the court.  Two years later, the court moved to its present location in the Caleb Boggs Federal Building on King Street.  In 1985 the fourth judgeship was added.