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Court History

For over two centuries, the federal courts in Indiana have been called upon to resolve the most significant legal, political, and social problems of the day. Before becoming a state, Indiana was part of the Northwest Territory, consisting of the land belonging to the United States that lay northwest of the Ohio River, including the present states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The judicial power of the national government was first established in this territory by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which provided for a Territorial Court consisting of three federal judges. In 1800, Congress separated most of the territory west of the present state of Ohio and called it the “Indiana Territory.” In 1816, Indiana was admitted as the nineteenth state and the federal District Court was established on March 3, 1817. Benjamin Parke was appointed as the first district judge three days later.

The court first met in Corydon on May 5, 1817. It moved to Indianapolis in January 1825, coinciding with the move of the state government. One district judge served the entire state of Indiana until 1925, when the court received a second judgeship. This arrangement ended when Congress split the District of Indiana into the Southern District and Northern District in April 1928. One judge continued to serve the judicial needs of the Southern District until 1954. Today, Congress has authorized five full-time district judges for the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana to conduct the judicial business of the United States in the southern part of Indiana.

From its earliest days, the District Court has made its mark on the nation’s judicial landscape. In 1818, Judge Benjamin Parke upheld the constitutionality of the federal statute permitting the return of fugitive slaves to the states from which they had fled. In 1862, Judge Caleb Blood Smith, who as President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Interior was the first cabinet secretary from Indiana, presided over the “Morgan County War” trials, sparked by a band of southern Indiana citizens firing on union cavalry troops who were attempting to arrest Union army deserters. District Judge David McDonald and Circuit Justice David Davis heard the Civil War-era case of Ex parte Milligan and sent it on to the Supreme Court where, in 1866, Justice Davis announced the decision of the Supreme Court that civilian citizens may not be tried by military courts when the civil courts are open and available to hear cases. In the mid-1920s, the Court presided over a series of Prohibition-era prosecutions, including the “Jack Daniels Conspiracy Case,” which implicated 31 individuals ranging from bootleggers to St. Louis politicians and businessmen in a criminal scheme that siphoned 30,000 gallons of whiskey from nearly 900 barrels and sold the goods on the black market.

The District Court bench, whose members have included former Indiana Supreme Court justices, former members of Indiana’s General Assembly, and a former member of the United States House of Representatives, was an all-male institution until President Ronald Reagan appointed the first female judge, Sarah Evans Barker, in 1984. The court’s first African-American judge, Tanya Walton Pratt, was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010. The present court has addressed such complex and important public issues as busing, obscenity, school prayer, excessive force, prison conditions, voting rights, government corruption, ownership of international art antiquities, and the right of a child with AIDS to attend public school, in addition to many highly significant private lawsuits with national and international implications.

For more about the history of the court and its courthouses, please visit the additional links and resources on this page.