The Northern District of Texas’ beginnings go back to the late 1800's. When Texas first joined the Union in 1845, the state was organized as one federal judicial district with court held at Galveston. The first district judge was John C. Watrous. In 1857, Congress divided Texas into two judicial districts—Eastern and Western—with one authorized judgeship for each district.
The Northern District was established as the third judicial district in Texas on February 24, 1879, with three divisional offices and one judge. The divisional offices were located at Dallas, Graham, and Waco.
The district’s first judge, Andrew Phelps McCormick, received his commission on April 10, 1879, and Judge McCormick appointed the first clerk of court, John Hollingsworth Finks, on May 23, 1879. Judge McCormick settled with his family in Dallas because it was the largest town in the district, and he thought most of the court’s business would be done in that division. Clerk John Finks worked out of the Waco division, and deputy clerk and commissioner Francis (“Frank”) Washington Girand (who was also Judge McCormick’s cousin) served as deputy in charge of the Graham division. Andrew J. Houston, grandson of Texas legend Sam Houston, served as deputy in charge of the Dallas division.
After living in Dallas for approximately four years, Judge McCormick moved to Graham. In Graham, court was held on the second floor of the Knights of Pythias Building on Oak Street over the Ryus Drugstore.
Judge McCormick continued to reside in Graham until 1890 when he moved back to Dallas. In 1896, the work of the Graham division was transferred to Abilene. That same year, the Fort Worth and San Angelo divisions were established.
On March 11, 1902, a fourth district was established in Texas, the Southern District, and the Waco division was transferred from the Northern District to the Western District of Texas. The Northern District then consisted of the Abilene, Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Angelo divisions.
The Amarillo division was established on February 14, 1908, and the Wichita Falls division was established on February 26, 1917. Finally, the Lubbock division was established in the Northern District of Texas on May 26, 1928.
Judges in the Northern District of Texas have been involved in many cases and events of historical significance. One of the most publicized cases in the early days of the court involved an attempted lynching of five federal prisoners known as “the Marlow brothers,” who were being held on charges of larceny. The brothers were attacked while being transported in federal custody from Graham to Weatherford, and two of the five were killed. The case ultimately ended up in the Supreme Court. In more recent times, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas put Judge Sarah T. Hughes in the media spotlight. The diminutive Judge Hughes administered the oath of office to then Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson on Air Force One at Love Field Airport. Judge Hughes was the first, and currently the only, female to ever administer the oath of office to a United States president.
The case of Roe v. Wade, filed in Dallas in 1970, is perhaps the most nationally- recognized case that originated in the Northern District. School desegregation cases in Dallas and Fort Worth garnered years of media attention beginning in the 1970s. The decade of the 1980s brought a plethora of fraud cases involving financial institutions to the Northern District of Texas. High profile cases in the 1990s involved entertainment and media personalities as diverse as Barney the purple dinosaur, Oprah Winfrey, and televangelist Robert Tilton. In 1995, the first death sentence in the nation under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 was handed down in the Fort Worth division. Post September 11, 2001, several high profile criminal cases against alleged supporters of terrorism were prosecuted in the Northern District of Texas.