James C. Duff, an influential figure in Washington’s legal circles for the last 36 years, was named the new president of the Newseum on Tuesday.

James C. Duff, incoming president of the Newseum (Courtesy of Newseum)

“I was very familiar with the organization and what its mission is. I like the purpose of educating the public about the freedoms that we have,” said Duff.

The Newseum, opened since April 2008, focuses on the First Amendment and media issues in a broad spectrum of exhibitions and forums.

In Washington Duff has worked for blue-chip law firms, the prestigious Georgetown University Law School and the inner sanctums of the U.S. Supreme Court. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., appointed him in 2006 to the office with a $7 billion budget and a federal judicial army of 35,000 employees. The Newseum has 139 employees.

His museum experience came through his judicial ties. When he was counselor/administrative assistant to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, he helped prepare the Justice for his chancellor duties at the Smithsonian Institution. And the U.S. Supreme Court has its own small museum. “Chief Burger converted the ground floor to a museum, and I worked with the curator’s office. The court has 1 million visitors a year,” Duff said.

With the Newseum, there is direct connection to his teaching duties. For 10 years he has taught civil liberties and constitutional law at Georgetown. “For the last two years I have brought students to see the 9/11 materials and the film. That is very powerful. I have a strong affinity for what the museum does and what our freedoms are,” Duff said.

Duff, a native of Hamilton, Ohio, went to the University of Kentucky and was a walk-on member of its famed basketball team. “We were the number one freshman class in the country. When we were seniors, I was no longer on the team, but we were national runner-up. They were beaten by UCLA,” Duff, who played guard, recalled.

The Newseum has been criticized for its double digit admission ($21.95 for two consecutive days for adults) but the crowds have taken advantage of its special offers and group rates. In April it had 84,000 visitors, its highest month since the opening and an increase of 18 percent over the same period in 2010.

Duff will take over sometime this summer from Charles L. Overby, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, who is retiring. In a statement, Overby said, “He understands our First Amendment mission thoroughly. His fresh perspective will keep the programs of the Freedom Forum and the Newseum relevant and compelling.”