Why is the Third Circuit’s courthouse named for James Byrne?

Okay, my fellow Third Circuit enthusiasts, it’s quiz time.

Question: The courthouse where the Third Circuit sits is named the James A. Byrne United States Courthouse. So, who was James A. Byrne?

  1. the Third Circuit’s first African American judge
  2. an FDR-era U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, and Supreme Court Associate Justice
  3. the Third Circuit’s first Chief Judge
  4. the only Third Circuit judge (besides Samuel Alito) elevated to the Supreme Court

Answer: None of the above.

James Aloysius Byrne was a Congressman from Philadelphia from 1953 to 1973. Before that, he was a mortician. He lost in the 1972 Democratic primary to Bill Green, and he died in 1980. His Wikipedia page is here, his Congressional bio is here.

The wrong answers? #1 is William Hastie. #2 is James F. Byrnes. #3 is John Biggs Jr. #4 doesn’t exist — Alito is the only one.

So why was the Third Circuit’s courthouse named after Byrne? Beats me.

Byrne’s biographical pages just list the positions he held, they doesn’t list a single accomplishment. He’s buried in suburban Philly, and Allen Dulles once thanked him for writing a letter of recommendation for a woman who wanted to work for the CIA. Otherwise, he’s an internet cipher, undistinguished and forgotten.

As best I can tell, the reason why the courthouse is named after Byrne was this: Byrne’s two decades in Congress ended around the time the courthouse was being built. He left Congress in 1973, the building was completed in 1975.

Looking at the names of other circuits’ courthouses, I think it’s fair to say that none are named after a less distinguished figure than ours.

Four circuits’ courthouses are named after Supreme Court Justices: the Second (Thurgood Marshall), Fourth (Lewis Powell), Sixth (Potter Stewart), and Tenth (Byron White). Marshall and Stewart served on their circuit courts, while Powell and White both were strongly identified with their home states.

Four circuits’ courthouses are named after legendary circuit judges: the Fifth (John Minor Wisdom), Ninth (James Browning), Eleventh (Elbert Parr Tuttle), and DC (E. Barrett Prettyman).

The other three are, like the Third Circuit’s, named after members of Congress. The Seventh Circuit’s courthouse is named for Senator Everett Dirksen, a Senate minority leader credited with helping to write the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. The Eighth Circuit building is named after longtime Senator and abortive Vice Presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton. The closest analog to the Third Circuit is the First Circuit’s courthouse named for Congressman Joe Moakley. Moakley was first elected by defeating a virulently anti-busing incumbent, and after a quarter-century in Congress rose to serve as chair of the powerful Rules Committee.

Are there any better options to name the Third Circuit’s courthouse after than Byrne? Gracious yes. Here’s my back-of-the-napkin list:

I’m probably forgetting other good options. My vote’s for Becker.

As luck would have it, there’s lots of precedent for Congress renaming federal courthouses.

At least four federal circuit courthouses were renamed, all four for judges. The Ninth Circuit’s courthouse was renamed for Browning in 2005, the Second Circuit’s was renamed for Marshall in 2001, the DC Circuit’s was renamed for Prettyman in 1997, and the Fifth Circuit’s was renamed for Wisdom in 1994.

There also is precedent for changing to a courthouse’s name from a politician’s to a judge’s. The federal courthouse in Charleston, SC, was renamed in 2015 for pioneering district judge and civil rights attorney Waties Waring. The building formerly was named for Senator Ernest Hollings.

And there are countless examples of federal courthouse renamings. A few recent ones:

  • Last year the federal courthouse in Shreveport, LA was renamed for a former federal district judge.
  • Also last year the federal courthouse in Greenville, NC, was renamed for a bankruptcy judge.
  • Also last year the federal courthouse in Gainesville, GA, was renamed for a federal district judge.
  • In 2013 the federal courthouse in Sherman, TX was renamed for a federal district judge.
  • And, of course, here in the Third Circuit the federal courthouse in Pittsburgh was renamed in 2015 for Third Circuit Judge Joseph Weis.

I haven’t heard discussed the idea of changing the name of the Third Circuit’s courthouse. But I think it’s worth considering.

Sorry, Mr. Byrne.

UPDATE: Reader Greg emailed me this interesting comment (there seems to be a glitch preventing comments from posting):

As best I can tell you’re right–it appears the courthouse was named after Byrne because of his congressional service and because he was retiring around that time. His upcoming retirement prompted lavish praise in the Congressional Record in 1972, see https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/GPO-CRECB-1972-pt28/pdf/GPO-CRECB-1972-pt28-3-1.pdf#page=59. The bill naming the courthouse after him followed shortly after – https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/STATUTE-86/pdf/STATUTE-86-Pg1019.pdf#page=7 – see Sec. 38.
A related fun tidbit: then-Senators Specter and Santorum introduced a bill in 2001 to name the courthouse’s lobby the “Edward R. Becker Lobby.” See https://www.congress.gov/bill/107th-congress/senate-bill/1790/actions. That bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, though I couldn’t find what happened to it after that–but google turns up numerous references to the lobby being named after Judge Becker.