Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

Historical Legal Materials for the District of Columbia

Click: Legal Materials and law-related resources in the Washingtoniana Division – a bibliography.

I created this list back in 1996 and updated it through 1999. Washingtoniana has a wealth of legal/legislative resources throughout its collections, much not easy to access.

In addition, some of the legislation passed by the appointed DC Council is cataloged and in the open stacks.


Phil Mendelson, Chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia, today (7/29/2015) announced an historic agreement with the National Archives to scan and publish all the legislation of the presidentially-appointed District Council that preceded the current, Home Rule iteration of the same body. The project, initiated by Councilmember David Grosso, will return these documents to broad public view for the first time ever. They will be available on both the National Archives’, and the Council’s, websites.

“I am thrilled that our agreement with the National Archives will make these historic documents widely available.  This will fill in six years of DC’s legislative history.  The appointed Council represented the first time in almost 100 years that’s DC residents had a real say in their local government.  The appointed Council set many precedents for the Home Rule period, and these records are their legacy to us.”

For much of the District’s history, it was governed by three-member presidentially-appointed board whose members were knows as Commissioners.  As the civil rights era dawned,  and consistent with its spirit, local calls for expanded Home Rule grew louder and louder. In an effort to partially respond to such demands, President Lyndon Baines Johnson championed a hybrid structure featuring an appointed mayor and council. From November of 1967 to January of 1975, this structure was in place. Walter Washington was the appointed mayor throughout, and John Hechinger and Gilbert Hahn were notable Council Chairs.

The appointed Council did not have the same extent of authority that its elected successor gained under Home Rule. However, with the limited powers it was granted, the appointed Council did pass several hundred measures that are of both legal and historical importance. Although the appointed Council’s days came to an end when the Home Rule era dawned, the legislation enacted by this body (unless superseded by subsequent measures) remains in effect as DC law.

Among the measures enacted by the appointed Council:

  • Transportation: Three Sisters Bridge and North Central Freeway decisions. Metrobus and Metrorail funding. DC’s Metro Stations names and designs. Bicycle regulations and accessible sidewalks.
  • Human Services: Closed Junior Village, the District’s shameful orphanage. Ended demeaning welfare rules
  • Police Department: Landmark use of deadly force rules. Integration of force and patrol practices
  • Consumer Protection: Banned deceptive practices
  • Environmental Polices: Enacted strong air and water pollution controls
  • Gun Control: Mandated gun registration
  • Insurance: Ratemaking and Policy Holder Protection

When the first post-Home Rule elected Council took office, there were firm plans to publish the appointed Council’s legislation, but that did not occur. The records were sent to the Archives for safekeeping. Over time, their existence there was nearly forgotten, until Councilmember Grosso initiated the research effort that led to their recent re-emergence.

While the documents in question have always been held by the Archives, and consistently available to the public during this time, it is fair to say that they languished in obscurity during this time.  The current project will make them easily available to the public at large.

The planned project, to be conducted by the Council Secretary’s staff, will involve the digital scanning of all of the available records at the Archives. When completed, the full body of research will be published on line as part of the District’s Legislative Statutes-at-Large. This will put these important documents back in the public view and will restore to the public a significant and important piece of DC law and history.

We are grateful to Councilmember Grosso and his staff for finding these important records and pursuing this project. We are equally indebted to the National Archives for their understanding, cooperation and diligence in bringing this agreement to fruition.

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This entry was posted on July 29, 2015 by in Legal history and tagged , , , , .
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