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Edward Allen Tamm

Edward Allen Tamm served the federal bench with distinction for almost forty years, as a district and appellate court judge. For much of his life, he was a guiding force in the field of judicial ethics. His commaittee work for the U.S. Judicial Conference helped to set the standards for judicial conduct throughout the nation and to instill public confidence in the fair administration of justice. (The Judicial Conference is the principal machinery through which the federal court system operates. This group establishes the standards and shapes the policies governing the federal judiciary.)


Tamm was born April 21, 1906, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Shortly afterward, his family moved to Washington State. Tamm attended Mount Saint Charles College, in Helena, Montana, and the University of Montana. In 1928 he moved to Washington, D.C., and he earned his doctor of JURISPRUDENCE degree from Georgetown University Law School in 1930.

After graduating from law school, Tamm joined the FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION (FBI). There, he advanced quickly, achieving a promotion to assistant director in 1934. From 1940 to 1948, he worked closely with Director J. EDGAR HOOVER as a special assistant and, as such, traveled around the world. In 1945, Tamm served as special adviser to the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Conference on International Organizations. During the WORLD WAR II years, Tamm also served his country in the Navy Reserve, attaining the rank of lieutenant commander.

In 1948 Tamm was appointed U.S. district judge for the District of Columbia by President HARRY S. TRUMAN. Because of Tamm's background with the FBI and his lack of trial experience, the appointment was met with mixed reaction. Eventually confirmed, Tamm served the district court for the next seventeen years. At the time of his appointment, the district court not only handled federal cases but also was a court of general jurisdiction for the District of Columbia. This meant that Tamm handled local cases, including traffic and small claims issues, as well as federal issues. Therefore, Tamm had ample opportunity to develop his skills as a trial judge. He heard a wide variety of cases that normally would have been tried before state courts.

As a district judge, Tamm cultivated an interest in JUDICIAL ADMINISTRATION. He established a reputation for knowing how to move cases through the court. In the late 1950s, Tamm chaired a district courts committee to explore the use of electronic equipment for court reporting. He also pioneered the use of six-member juries for civil cases. His vision was a long time coming, but in the mid-1990s, electronic court reporting methods were widely used, and six-member jury panels for civil matters were the rule in most of the nation's federal courts.

Tamm was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1965, by President LYNDON B. JOHNSON. Tamm's work on the trial bench deeply influenced his opinion writing as an appellate judge. His opinions were usually short and to the point; they were written to provide trial courts with a clear guide to the proper application of the law—and not to impress the reader with the judge's literary skill.

The case for which Tamm is best known is often called the Seven Dirty Words case—Pacifica Foundation v. FCC, 556 F.2d 9, 181 U.S. App. D.C. 132 (D.C. Cir. Mar. 16, 1977). In it, Tamm set aside a FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION (FCC) ruling that a recording containing seven specific words (referring to such things as sexual acts and portions of human anatomy) could not be aired on the radio. He wrote that the FCC order banning air play of the explicit excerpts from George Carlin's Occupation Foole album carried the agency into the "forbidden realm of censorship." Tamm's decision was ultimately overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5–4 ruling concluding that neither the FIRST AMENDMENT guarantee of free speech nor federal law against broadcast CENSORSHIP barred the FCC from revoking the license of any station that aired explicit material

during the daytime or early evening hours (Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726, 98 S. Ct. 3026, 57 L. Ed. 2d 1073 [1978]).

As an appellate judge, Tamm continued his commitment to improving the administration of justice and increased his participation on Judicial Conference committees. During these years, Tamm also took up the cause of monitoring judicial ethics. He served as chairman of the Judicial Conference Ethics Review Committee (1969–78), chairman of the Judicial Ethics Committee (1978–85), member of the Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration (1970–85), cochairman of the Joint Committee on the Code of Judicial Conduct (1972– 79), and member of the Advisory Committee on Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure (1979–85). As chairman of the committee responsible for administering both self-imposed Judicial Conference ethical standards and, later, congressionally mandated financial reporting, Tamm personally examined or reviewed the thousands of financial statements submitted by federal judges and employees each year.

Tamm died on September 22, 1985, at his home in Washington, D.C. He was survived by his wife of fifty years, Grace Monica Sullivan Tamm.

In the spring of 1986, Tamm was posthumously awarded the Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award, which is administered by the American Judicature Society. This award is named for Edward J. Devitt, a former chief U.S. district judge for Minnesota. It acknowledges the dedication and contributions to justice made by all federal judges, by recognizing the specific achievements of one judge who has contributed significantly to the profession. Tamm was acknowledged for administrative innovations that improved the performance of the courts and for his work in promoting and monitoring judicial ethics.


Burger, Warren E. 1986. "Tribute to Edward Allen Tamm." Georgetown Law Journal 74 (August).

"Tamm, Edward Allen" (obituary). 1985. Washington Post (September 23).

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