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Woods, William Burnham

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Birth: August 3, 1824, Newark, Ohio.

Education: Attended Western Reserve College for three years; graduated from Yale University, 1845.

Official Positions: Mayor of Newark, Ohio, 1856; Ohio state representative, 1858–1862; chancellor, middle chancery district of Alabama, 1868–1869; judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, 1869–1880.

Supreme Court Service: Nominated associate justice by President Rutherford B. Hayes, December 15, 1880, to replace William Strong, who had retired; confirmed by the Senate, December 21, 1880, by a 39–8 vote; took judicial oath January 5, 1881; served until May 14, 1887; replaced by Lucius Q.C. Lamar, nominated by President Grover Cleveland.

Death: May 14, 1887, Washington, D.C.

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William Burnham Woods
Noteworthy Opinions

William Burnham Woods

William B. Woods is remembered more for his role as a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit than for his six years of active service on the U.S. Supreme Court. A native of Ohio and a Union veteran, Woods settled in Alabama after the Civil War and was active in Republican politics there. After his appointment to the Fifth Circuit Court, which encompassed states of the deep South, Woods was the first circuit judge to deal with acts of Congress designed to enforce blacks' political and civil rights. In conjunction with these laws, Woods was also called on to consider the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. Did the amendment's privileges and immunities clause protect citizens from the adverse actions of private citizens or only from harmful legislation? In collaboration with Supreme Court justice Joseph P. Bradley, who was assigned to the Fifth Circuit, Woods developed a sweeping view of the Fourteenth Amendment in several cases during Reconstruction.

In 1880 President Rutherford B. Hayes tapped Woods for the U.S. Supreme Court. The president was attracted by the idea of appointing a southerner, yet was reassured by Woods's status as a Union veteran. Ironically, while on the Court, Woods joined the majority in reversing his once broad interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Undoubtedly, his most noted opinion is United States v. Harris (1883), which involved a prosecution under the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. The defendants allegedly had used violence to curtail blacks' civil rights by breaking into the jail where four black men were held, beating them, and causing the death of one. Woods held that Congress had overreached its powers in passing the law. Acts of Congress could not punish mob action in this kind of case; only state law could do that. The duty of the national government was simply to work against state laws that discriminated against certain classes of citizens. In the Civil Rights Cases (1883), Woods joined the majority in holding that the Fourteenth Amendment could not prevent private acts of discrimination, such as the refusal of a theater owner to sell first-class tickets to blacks.

In Presser v. Illinois (1886), Woods wrote for a unanimous Court an opinion that reinforced his new limited view of the Fourteenth Amendment. Herman Presser had been arrested for carrying arms in a private militia in violation of an Illinois law. He sought to have his conviction overturned on grounds that the Second Amendment granted the right to bear arms, and the Fourteenth promised to protect this right for all U.S. citizens. Woods's opinion, however, made it clear that the Second Amendment only prevented Congress from interfering with the right to bear arms; state governments traditionally controlled militias, and nothing in the Fourteenth Amendment warranted interference with state laws in this sort of case.

Woods was a workhorse while on the Court; he wrote some 160 majority opinions during his relatively short tenure, most of them dealing with real estate, mortgages, patents, and taxation. He dissented only eight times in six years. Illness struck suddenly in the spring of 1886, and one year later Woods died. His status as a forgotten justice is probably related to his short tenure and his tendency to side quietly with the majority. He may also have failed to win respect over the years because of his status as a “carpetbagger.” In addition, his shifting interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment gave him the appearance of having a muddled judicial philosophy.


On political matters and Woods's appointment, see Thomas E. Baynes Jr., “Yankee from Georgia: A Search for Justice Woods,” Supreme Court Historical Society Yearbook (1978): 31, which also provides analysis of Woods's voting on the Court. A good overall treatment is Louis Filler, “William B. Woods,” in Friedman and Israel, Justices, vol. 2, 1327.

Noteworthy Opinions

United States v. Harris, 106 U.S. 629 (1883)

Presser v. Illinois, 116 U.S. 252 (1886)


Document Citation
Woods, William Burnham, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 618 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18170-979676
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