No one quite knows when the name “Mother Court” originated, or who first coined the phrase. This is perhaps because the court traces its origins to the Judiciary Act of 1789, and antedates by a few weeks the organization of the U.S. Supreme Court. One of the first lawyers admitted to practice before it was Aaron Burr. Whatever the provenance, the name stuck.
In our system, U.S. trial courts are organized into 94 federal districts, including at least one in each state. Judges of the Mother Court, like all federal judges, are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. There are as of this writing 33 men and 15 women serving as judges on the court. While the Southern District is a trial court, occasionally judges of the Mother Court sit by designation in the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
The jurisdiction of the federal courts depends on acts of Congress, which determine what cases, civil and criminal, they may take. State courts have an independent and sometimes overlapping sovereignty, with jurisdiction over matters that may or may not be brought in the federal courts.
Thus, admiralty, antitrust, trademark and copyright, patent, and securities cases are normally tried in a federal district court, while divorce, probate, medical malpractice, automobile accident cases, and the like are generally tried in the state courts, where outcomes may dramatically differ.
The same is true of criminal cases. Congress has given the federal courts criminal jurisdiction over terrorism, racketeering, bank robbery, securities fraud, narcotics, and interstate theft cases, to name but a few. Some of these crimes may be tried in the state courts, but the major cases are normally prosecuted in the district courts, where the presidentially appointed judges are thought to be better, more sophisticated, independent of the political process, and not subject to venality and external pressure.
A mother court needs a home. Since 1936, the Southern District has been housed in the United States Courthouse, an imposing WPA building in Foley Square, a short distance from the southern tip of Manhattan. The architect Cass Gilbert designed the 30-story building, now a national historic landmark. Gilbert crowned the building with a pyramidal roof adorned by gold leaf. The trappings of justice are supposed to be impressive—and in Foley Square, they are.
The Southern District is a trial court. Lawyers call it a court of original, as opposed to appellate, jurisdiction. Its job is to find the facts and apply the law in the first instance or, as Mother Court Judge Marvin Frankel used to say facetiously, “Get the issue erroneously decided and on its way to the Court of Appeals.”
The Mother Court’s jurisdiction, its power to act, comprises Manhattan and the Bronx, as well as six upstate New York counties. In establishing the Southern District in 1789, Congress had in mind primarily a maritime court. Its scope enlarged, however, as New York grew to become the economic, commercial, and cultural epicenter of the Nation. Today, its boundaries embrace America’s financial markets, stock exchanges and principal banks, the Broadway stage, performing arts centers, and museums.
We think of the Southern District as the Mother Court for many reasons beyond seniority and geographic significance. Nationally recognized for the outstanding quality of its judiciary, the excellence of the advocates who appear before it, its authoritative opinions grounded in real substance, the sensitive management of its docket, and its relevance to the rule of law, the Mother Court is the gold standard for trial courts around the United States. It is the country’s crucible of justice in the continuously unfolding history of our Nation.
Reprinted with permission from The Mother Court: Tales of Cases That Mattered in America's Greatest Trial Court, by James D. Zirin. 2014 copyright by the American Bar Association. All rights reserved. Available for purchase through the ABA webstore.