Judge Emmet G. Sullivan was born in Washington, D.C., and attended public schools in the District of Columbia until his graduation from McKinley High School in 1964. In 1971, he received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science from Howard University, and, in 1971, a Juris Doctor Degree from the Howard University School of Law. Upon graduation from law school, Judge Sullivan was the recipient of a Reginald Heber Smith Fellowship and was assigned to the Neighborhood Legal Services Program in Washington, D.C., where he worked for one year. The following year, he served as a law clerk to Superior Court Judge James A. Washington Jr..
In 1973, Judge Sullivan joined the law firm of Houston & Gardner. He subsequently became a partner and was actively engaged in the general practice of law with that firm until August 1980, when his partner, William C. Gardner, was appointed as an Associate Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Thereafter, Judge Sullivan was a partner in the successor firm of Houston, Sullivan & Gardner. While in private practice, Judge Sullivan was a member of a number of bar associations, court advisory, and rules committees. He was a perennial voting delegate to the Circuit Judicial Conference and the District of Columbia Law Students in Court Program; the District of Columbia Judicial Conference Voluntary Arbitration Committee; the Nominating Committee of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia; and the U.S. District Court Committee on Grievances. Judge Sullivan has also taught as an adjunct professor at teh Howard University School of Law and has served as a member of the visiting faculty at Harvard Law School's Trial Advocacy Workshop. He is a member of the National Bar Association, the Washington Bar Association, the District of Columbia Bar, and the Bar Association of the District of Columbia.
Judge Sullivan is the recipient of many honors, including the Ollie May Cooper Award, the Thurgood Marshall Award of Excellence, and the Howard University Distinguished Alumni Award. He has also been recognized for his achievements by the District of Columbia Public School System, the Judicial Administration Division of the American Bar Association, and the District of Columbia Judicial Disabilities and Tenure Commission.
On October 3, 1984, President Ronald Reagan appointed Judge Sullivan to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. As an Associate Judge of the Superior Court, Judge Sullivan was one of only seven judges to have served full-time in every division. On November 25, 1991, Judge Sullivan was appointed by President George Bush to serve as an Associate Judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. While an Associate Judge of that court, and in addition to his full-time case management responsibilities, Judge Sullivan was Chairperson for the Nineteenth Annual Judicial Conference of the District of Columbia, held in June, 1994. On June 16, 1994, Judge Sullivan was appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve as United States District Judge for the District of Columbia, making Judge Sullivan the first person in the District of Columbia to have been appointed by three United States Presidents to three judicial positions.