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Circuit Court Opinions:

Associate Justice William Burnham Woods, Le Grand v. United States (1882)

Associate Justice William Burnham Woods (1880–1887)

Le Grand v. United States, 12 F. 577 (C.C.E.D. Tex. 1882) [Fifth Circuit]

Le Grand was a prosecution brought under section 2 of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which made it a federal crime to “go in disguise, on the highway or on the premises of another, for the purpose of depriving, either directly or indirectly, any person or class of persons of the equal protection of the laws, or of equal privileges and immunities under the laws.” The defendant was convicted in a U.S. district court and then appealed to the circuit court, claiming that the statute was unconstitutional.

As a circuit judge hearing United States v. Hall (1871) in the Southern District of Alabama, Justice Woods had expressed a robust view of the federal government’s capacity to prosecute individuals for civil rights violations. In that case, he upheld convictions brought under the Enforcement Act of 1870 for violating individuals’ rights to freedom of speech and assembly. By 1882, however, the legal landscape had changed significantly, with several Supreme Court precedents narrowing the scope of civil rights enforcement.

In Le Grand, Woods reversed the conviction, finding the statute unconstitutional. He relied mainly on the state action theory espoused in United States v. Cruikshank (1876), first by Justice Bradley on circuit and thereafter by the Supreme Court. The first section of the Fourteenth Amendment—which contained the privileges and immunities and equal protection guarantees—made it “perfectly clear” that “when a state has been guilty of no violation of its provisions the section does not confer on congress the power to punish private individuals … acting without any authority from the state” he wrote. The portion of the Ku Klux Klan Act in question, which was aimed entirely at individuals, was therefore not authorized by the amendment.

Woods also found that the law could not be justified by the Thirteenth Amendment prohibition of slavery, which could be interpreted “not only to protect the personal freedom of the enfranchised citizens, but to remove from them every badge and restraint of slavery and involuntary servitude.” The statute was too broad, he explained, because it would apply to conduct by whites against whites, for example, which was clearly outside the scope of the amendment. He drew an analogy to United States v. Reece (1875), in which the Supreme Court invalidated two sections of the Enforcement Act of 1870 because, not making any specific reference to race, color, or previous condition of servitude, they exceeded the bounds of the Fifteenth Amendment.

In United States v. Harris (1883), the Supreme Court held section 2 of the 1871 act unconstitutional, with Wood writing an opinion similar to the one he delivered in Le Grand.