Woods, William B. (1824–1887)

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WOODS, WILLIAM B. (1824–1887)

William Burnham Woods of Ohio was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1880 after eleven years of service as United States circuit judge for the Fifth Circuit. His tenure on the Supreme Court was brief (1881–1887); virtually all of his opinions for the Court dealt with private law questions that came up under diversity jurisdiction. He is remembered primarily for his collaboration with Justice joseph p. bradley, first on circuit, then on the Supreme Court, in the formulation of a jurisprudence for the fourteenth amendment. Although initially disposed to give the amendment a broad construction, Woods ultimately retreated in the face of a more circumspect majority on the Supreme Court.

Woods's first meeting with Bradley, who had been assigned to the circuit upon his appointment to the Supreme Court, occurred at New Orleans in 1870. There they advanced a broad interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment's privileges and immunities clause in Live Stock Dealers & Butchers Assn. v. Crescent City Co. & Board of Metropolitan Police (1870), the first case, Woods noted in the report, in which the amendment was fully considered by a federal tribunal. The privileges and immunities of United States citizens, they contended, embraced all "fundamental rights," including that of pursuing any lawful employment in a lawful manner. "It is possible," Bradley admitted, "that those who framed the article were not themselves aware of the far reaching character of its terms," but its language clearly applied "as well to white as colored persons" and protected the rights of both against arbitrary state laws. Working from memoranda prepared by Bradley, Woods indicated in United States v. Hall (1871) that freedom of speech and freedom of assembly were among the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, opening the door for incorporation of the bill of rights through the privileges and immunities clause. Over the dissents of Bradley and three others, however, the Supreme Court rejected each of these pioneering doctrinal formulations in the landmark slaughterhouse cases (1873). Eleven years later, in butchers union slaughterhouse co v. crescent city live stock co. (1884), Woods joined with Bradley and Justices stephen j. field and john marshall harlan in one last trenchant protest against the majority's emasculation of the privileges and immunities clause. Woods surrendered altogether in Presser v. Illinois (1886), where he spoke for a unanimous Court in holding that the Bill of Rights was a limitation only on the power of the federal government and in no way restricted the states.

Woods's initial construction of Congress's affirmative powers under the Fourteenth Amendment was especially spacious. In Hall, the case of first impression, Woods overruled defendants' demurrer to a conspiracy indictment under the Civil Rights Act of 1870. A federal statute punishing private action such as assault, he asserted, was certainly an "appropriate" exercise of national power, for "denying the equal protection of the laws included the omission to protect, as well as the omission to pass laws for protection." (See state action.) In united states v. cruikshank (1874), however, Bradley led a retreat from this position. There counsel for the defendants again attacked the constitutionality of the conspiracy measure, insisting that it usurped the state's exclusive jurisdiction over crimes such as murder. Woods disagreed and stood on the doctrine advanced in his Hall opinion. But Bradley conceded that protection of rights against private action was primarily the duty of the states, and his views prevailed in the Supreme Court. Woods then abandoned the Hall formulation. Seven years later in united states v. harris (1883), his most important Supreme Court opinion, Woods prominently displayed his penchant for following the lead of others. The results were tragic. In Harris he not only embraced Bradley's Cruikshank position but also invalidated the Ku Klux Klan Act (force act of 1871) on the grounds that it failed to restrict criminal liability to persons who conspired to divest rights because of the victim's race. As drafted, Woods explained for the Court, the statute covered instances even where whites assaulted whites; consequently it was "broader than is warranted" by the Thirteenth Amendment.

Charles W. Mc Curdy


Filler, Louis 1969 William B. Woods. In Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel (eds.), The Justices of the United States Supreme Court 1789–1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions. Pp. 1327–1336. New York: Chelsea House.

Frantz, Laurent B. 1964 Congressional Power to Enforce the Fourteenth Amendment against Private Acts. Yale Law Journal 73:1353–1384.

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Woods, William B. (1824–1887)

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