"The Guardian of Liberty" is part of a phrase wrapping the Federal Courthouse in Philadelphia.

Third Circuit Historical Society celebrates Judge Albert Maris, welcomes new members

By Charles L. Becker, Kline & Specter, P.C., and Dr. Leanna Lee Whitman, Third Circuit Libraries

The Historical Society for the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the Third Circuit’s rich history. It preserves documents, records, and memorabilia of interest to scholars, historians and the general public. It also presents educational programs, curates educational exhibits, and records oral histories. The Historical Society’s permanent collection includes materials from and about Judge Albert Maris and Judge John Biggs, Jr., and oral histories from a variety of Third Circuit judges.

Like the Third Circuit Bar Association, the Historical Society’s affairs are governed by a board of directors that includes judges, lawyers and academics throughout the circuit. Membership is open to all individuals interested in advancing the Society’s mission. We invite you to join! If you are interested, please email Third_Circuit_ Historical_Society@ca3.uscourts.gov. Or you can contact Chip Becker or Leanna Lee Whitman by phone.

The Historical Society’s most recent accomplishment is opening two exhibitions and presenting a program on Judge Albert Maris’ life and work. Judge Maris enjoyed a remarkable 53-year career on the federal bench in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (1936-1938) and on the Third Circuit (1938-1989). John Marshall himself served a paltry 34 years in comparison. During his tenure, Judge Maris recodified the U.S. Criminal and Civil Codes, Titles 18 and 28, which President Truman signed into law in 1948; he helped modernize the civil, bankruptcy and appellate rules of procedure; he served as the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Emergency Appeals, with jurisdiction over complaints against the Office of Price Administration; and he served as Special Master to the United States Supreme Court in Wisconsin v. Illinois, concerning the diversion of waters from Lake Michigan.

All of this would be enough to stamp Judge Maris as a leading judge of his times. But there are still his contributions to the Virgin Islands, which are nothing short of titanic: he helped draft the Revised Organic Act, the equivalent of the Virgin Islands’ constitution; he played a principal role in codifying the civil and criminal statutes of the Virgin Islands; and he authored legislation that restructured the Virgin Islands court system. On top of everything, he performed the day-to-day work of deciding cases before the Third Circuit, casting thousands of votes and authoring hundreds of opinions.

The exhibition case celebrating Judge Maris’ work is located in the lobby on the 19th floor of the United States Courthouse in Philadelphia outside the Maris courtroom. Another exhibition case, located in the William H. Hastie Library on the first floor, depicts the personal side of Judge Maris: Quaker, scholar, family man, and naturalist. Judge Maris once remarked that he wished to be remembered “as an able and independent judge with a sense of justice.” That theme resonated in the program that took place in the Maris Courtroom on June 9, 2009, to accompany the exhibition opening. The program was attended by members of the public, the judiciary, and the Maris family. Judge Dolores Sloviter spoke about her personal relationship and interactions with Judge Maris and facilitated remarks by Judges Leonard Garth and Ruggero Aldisert through a telephone conference line.

Judge Sloviter made particular reference to Judge Maris’ opinion in Gobitis v. Minersville School Dist., 24 F. Supp. 271 (E.D. Pa. 1938), in which he enjoined a school district from barring two Jehovah’s Witness children from school due to their refusal, on religious grounds, to salute the flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance. “The loyalty of our people is to be judged not so much by their words as by the part they play in body politic,” Judge Maris wrote. Id. at 274. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with Judge Maris and reversed the decision in Minersville School Dist. v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586 (1940), but Judge Maris was vindicated three years later when the Supreme Court overturned its Gobitis decision. See West Virginia State Board of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943). Barnette remains a fundamental First Amendment opinion, stating that “[i]f there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion ….” Id. at 642. It concludes that the actions of local authorities to compel patriotic acts “transcends constitutional limitations on their power and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.” Id. These words echo and were informed by those of Judge Maris five years before.

The program’s other principal speaker was Dr. Leanna Lee Whitman, the Research Librarian and Archivist for the William H. Hastie Library, and the curator of the Maris exhibitions. Dr. Whitman gave the program’s attendees an elegant review of the exhibitions’ contents, showing images and playing audio tapes highlighting Judge Maris’ judicial career and personal life. At the conclusion of the program, mention was made of the various judges whose portraits hang in the Maris Courtroom. Judge Maris’ portrait hangs a little higher than the others, illustrating his deep and abiding influence over the Third Circuit’s culture and jurisprudence.

All are welcome to join in the Historical Society’s activities. We look forward to your involvement.


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