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History of the District

On March 4, 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt signed "a bill to divide the State of Texas into four judicial districts," creating the Southern District of Texas.

Justice Lies in the District
by Charles Zelden


Since its foundation, the Southern District of Texas has been served by forty-two District Judges and seven Clerks of Court. Information is available on Bankruptcy Judges and Magistrate Judges.

The first federal judge in Texas was John C. Watrous, who was appointed on May 26, 1846, to hold court in Galveston, with jurisdiction over the whole state. Judge Watrous had been Attorney General of the Republic of Texas. On February 21, 1857, the state was divided into two districts, Eastern and Western, with Judge Watrous continuing in the Eastern district. Judge Watrous and Judge Thomas H. DuVal, of the Western District of Texas, left the state on the secession of Texas from the Union, the only two United States Judges not to resign their posts in states that seceded. When Texas was restored to the Union, Watrous and DuVal resumed their duties and served until 1870. Judge Amos Morrill served in the Eastern District of Texas from 1872 to 1884. He was succeeded by Chauncy B. Sabin (1884 to 1890) and David E. Bryant (1890 to 1902). In 1902, when the Southern District was created by Act of Congress, Judge Bryant continued to serve in the Eastern District of Texas.

The Southern District of Texas started with one judge, Waller T. Burns, and a Clerk of Court, Christopher Dart. Since that time, the court has grown to nineteen district judgeships, six bankruptcy judgeships, sixteen magistrate judgeships, and over 200 deputy clerks.

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The district was created with four places of holding court: Brownsville, Galveston, Houston and Laredo. Three additional divisions have been created since the founding of the district: Corpus Christi, McAllen and Victoria.

Some of those events include:

1861 The federal courthouse in Galveston, still in use today, was completed. It is the oldest federal civil building in Texas.
1902 Waller T. Burns was appointed as first United States District Judge in the district on April 22.
1938 Congress added a second judgeship.
1942 Former Governor James Allred resigned the bench to run for the U.S. Senate; lost and was reappointed in 1949.
1949 Congress added two judgeships, bringing the total to four.
1961 Congress added a fifth judgeship. Judge Reynaldo G. Garza becomes the first Hispanic federal judge in the United States.
1964 Congress moves the counties of Austin, Fort Bend, and Wharton from the Galveston Division to the Houston Division.
1966 Congress adds a two district judgeships, bringing the total to seven.
1967 A jury in Houston found Muhammed Ali guilty of refusing to be inducted into the military. Judge Joe McDonald Ingraham sentenced Ali to a term 5 years and a fine of $10,000. Ali did not fight again until October 1970, several commissions having suspended his license for failing to enter the military. His conviction was eventually set aside.
1970 Congress adds an eighth judgeship.
1975 Judge Allen B. Hannay takes senior status after serving for 33 years, the longest term for a judge in the history of the district, at the time.
1978 Congress adds five district judgeships, bringing the total to thirteen.
1979 Gabrielle Kirk McDonald becomes the first African-American appointed to a federal court in Texas, and the first woman in the district. She is now a judge on war crimes tribunal.
1980 Congress moves the counties of Polk and Trinity to the newly created Lufkin Division of the Eastern District of Texas.
1984 Congress creates the McAllen Division.
1990 Congress adds five district judgeships, bringing the total to eighteen.
1999 New Brownsville courthouse completed.
2000 Congress adds one district judgeship, bringing the total to nineteen.
2001 New Corpus Christi courthouse completed.
2004 New Laredo courthouse completed.
2005 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily relocates to Houston courthouse after being displaced from New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina.

Historical information comes from court records, the book Justice Lies in the District, by Charles Zelden (Texas A&M University Press, 1992), and the research of the Honorable Joe McDonald Ingraham, now deceased. Steve Wilson, a graduate student at Rice University, is currently writing a book on the history of the Southern District of Texas from 1959 to present, and would appreciate help. He receives electronic mail at, or mail at History Department - MS #42, Rice University, 6100 Main Street, Houston, TX 77005-1892