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A Brief History

More than 200 years ago, Congress enacted the Judiciary Act of 1789, directing the President of the United States to appoint in each federal district "a meet person learned in the law to act as an attorney for the United States."  This person - the United States Attorney - was "to prosecute in (each) district all delinquents for crimes and offenses cognizable under the authority of the United States, and all civil actions in which the United States shall be concerned."

Soon after the passage of the Judiciary Act, President George Washington appointed 13 distinguished men to fill these new posts in the newly created federal judicial districts.  Writing to the first United States Attorney for the District of New York, Washington noted that "[t]he high importance of the judicial system in our national government makes it an indispensable duty to select such characters to fill the several offices in it as would discharge their respective duties in honor to themselves and advantage to their country."

The first United States Attorney for the District of Kentucky was Colonel George Nicholas. Colonel Nicholas led troops in the Revolutionary War and was a member of the Virginia Convention, which assembled for consideration and ratification of the United States Constitution. Colonel Nicholas was appointed U.S. Attorney by President Washington two days after the passage of the Judiciary Act of 1789. Colonel Nicholas later served as Kentucky's first Attorney General.

Other notable early United States Attorneys for the state include: Robert Trimble, who later served on the United States Supreme Court; John Jordan Crittenden, who later served as the U.S. Attorney General and was elected Kentucky's 17th governor in 1858; James M. Harlan, who later served as both Secretary of State and Attorney General for the Commonwealth (and who was the father of the Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan); and Benjamin Helm Bristow, under Ulysses S. Grant, and ran for President in 1876.

Early U.S. Attorneys enjoyed great autonomy. The first Attorney Genreal of the United States, Edmund Randolph, noted in a letter to President Washington that he had no authority over or communication from the United States Attorneys. What direction and supervision the U.S. Attorneys had at the time first came from the Secretary of State and then later the Treasury Department. In 1861, the Attorney General was authorized to supervise the United States Attorneys. In 1870, the Department of Justice was created with the Attorney General to superivse United States Attorneys' offices. Since that time, U.S. Attorneys have been a component of the Department of Justice.

Before the Civil War, United States Attorneys prosecuted only cases mentioned specifically in the Constitution, including piracy, counterfeiting, and treason, among others. Over the years however, with the expansion of the federal code, U.S. Attorneys offices are involved in a wide array of complex litigation. Today, our Office brings cases having a local, regional, national, and even international impact.

From 1789 to 1901, Kentucky remained a single judicial district with one U.S. Attorney. Until 1860, the headquarters of the district was in Frankfort, before eventually moving to Louisville. In 1901, Congress passed a law splitting the District of Kentucky in half, creating the Eastern and Wastern Districts. The Western District remained in Louisville, while the Eastern District eventually settled in Lexington.

Since the split, twenty-two men, and one woman, have served in the role of the presidentially-appointed U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District. 


Judiciary Act of 1789

Department of Justice Website www.justice.gov

28 U.S.C. § 547

 

Updated October 1, 2019

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