Court History

The Tenth Circuit

Tenth Circuit Courthouse

The Tenth Judicial Circuit is vast, comprising 560,625 square miles, or almost 20 percent of the land mass of the United States. It extends from the Great Salt Lake to the Missouri River and from Yellowstone to Mexico. Most of this land was acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 for the price of three cents an acre.

When Congress created the present appellate system in 1891 it established nine circuits, the largest of which, the Eighth, consisted of thirteen states. In 1929 Congress created the Tenth Circuit by splitting off six states: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming, leaving the remaining seven states in the Eighth Circuit.

The Tenth Circuit and its federal courts have a glorious history. Each state was a territory before achieving statehood and had federal territorial courts that existed during sometimes tumultuous times, chronicled in “The Federal Courts of the Tenth Judicial Circuit: A History,” published in 1992 and available on this website: “1992 Book.”

The circuit’s first statehood U.S. District Court came into being for the District of Kansas in 1861 when Kansas became a state. The era was one of turbulence and violence, with abolitionists warring against slavery interests in what became known as Bleeding Kansas. The famous civil rights case of Brown v. Board of Education originated in Kansas. Kansas has federal courthouses in Kansas City, Topeka, and Wichita.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado came into being with the Centennial State’s admission to the Union in 1876. Its mining and water law cases produced important advancements in the law in those fields. The district has courthouses in Denver, Grand Junction, and Durango. It also has an office and courtroom in the courthouse that is the circuit’s headquarters in the beautifully renovated Byron White United States Courthouse in Denver, named for that Coloradoan who served many years on the United States Supreme Court. A memorial to that justice is in that courthouse, see on this website: “Byron White Memorial.”

The federal district court in Wyoming came into existence with statehood in 1890. With a history as colorful as any state: the cowboys, petroleum and coal producers, ranchers and the beautiful land (including the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks) create a fascinating panorama. Wyoming was the locale of the infamous Teapot Dome litigation in which the government’s case was dismissed in 1924 for failure to prove fraud by clear and convincing evidence, but reversed by the Eighth Circuit with the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the reversal, see Mammoth Oil Company v. United States, 275 U.S. 12 (1927). Wyoming has courthouses in Cheyenne, Casper, and Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone Park.

Next in the chronology of the courts in the Tenth Circuit is the Court of Appeals itself, which began as part of the Eight Circuit in 1891, and then became the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1929. It began with two judges transferred from the Eighth Circuit (those from Colorado and Oklahoma) and two elevated from the district courts of Kansas and New Mexico. Its judge numbers have grown along with its caseload as is shown below.

The federal district court in Utah also opened with statehood in 1896. The state’s long and unique history, beginning with Mormon settlement in 1847, abounds with significant and interesting legal problems including polygamy, religious freedom, and commercial cases. Its courthouses are in Salt Lake City and St. George.

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907 it began with two federal district court districts. A third was created in 1924. It is the only state in the circuit with more than one federal district, an interesting political story. Oklahoma’s history of different Indian cultures, petroleum production, and individual political and economic leadership and activities reads like an absorbing novel. The Northern District courthouse is in Tulsa, the Western District in Oklahoma City and Lawton, and the Eastern District in Muskogee with its bankruptcy court in Okmulgee.

The last state in the circuit to attain statehood, and hence moving from a territorial court to a federal district court, was New Mexico in 1912. That state’s Spanish, Indian, and Mexican history is of great interest. It is indeed the land of enchantment and has preserved a unique culture along with its modern businesses, government facilities, and gambling casinos. It has district courthouses in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Roswell, and Las Cruces.

Congress authorizes the numbers of circuit, district, bankruptcy, and magistrate judges it considers necessary to handle the always growing business of the federal court system. The circuit and district judges are appointed under Article III of the U.S. Constitution for life, subject to removal only by the impeachment process in the U.S. Congress. Bankruptcy and Magistrate Judges are appointed for specific terms, selected by a process within the circuit itself.

In the year 2010 the circuit is authorized 12 active judgeship positions. The President may make these appointments from any state in the circuit, but for many years there have been at least one active circuit judge appointed from and resident in each state.

The various districts, as of 2010, have the following numbers of authorized active district, bankruptcy and magistrate judges:

State

District Judges

Bankruptcy Judges

Magistrate Judges

Colorado

7

5

6 full time, 2 part time

Kansas

6

4

5 full time

New Mexico

7

2

10 full time, 1 part time

Oklahoma, Eastern

1.5

1

2 full time

Oklahoma, Northern

3.5

2

3 full time

Oklahoma, Western

6

3

5 full time, 1 part time

Utah

5

3

4 full time, 1 part time

Wyoming

3

1

2 full time, 6 part time

Circuit and district judges are permitted by a congressional act to retire, or take senior status and continue to serve with a somewhat reduced load, under the “Rule of 80,” a combination of the judge’s age and years of service as an Article III judge, with a minimum age of 65 with 15 years service or 70 with 10 years service. Most judges eligible to retire take senior status and continue to carry significant workloads. At any given time there are senior judges serving and hearing cases in every court in the circuit. Magistrate judges can also be recalled after retirement, if they are willing and the need exists, and several are generally serving at any given time.

Not to be overlooked there are currently more than forty thousand practicing lawyers in the circuit, and many lawyers have contributed greatly to the law. Biographical sketches of some of them are to be found on this website, see “Lawyers & Profession.” Also, many others: paralegals, secretaries, court personnel, and other individuals contribute to the development of the law and the functioning of the federal legal system.