February 15, 1879 – President Rutherford B. Hayes Signs Law Admitting Women to the SCOTUS Bar

On this day in history, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed, as the Constitution Center reports:

‘An act to relieve certain legal disabilities of women,’ which read that ‘any woman who shall have been a member of the bar of the highest court of any State or Territory or of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia for the space of three years, and shall have maintained a good standing before such court, and who shall be a person of good moral character, shall, on motion, and the production of such record, be admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States.’”

19th President of the United States (1877-1881), Rutherford B. Hayes

In so doing, President Hayes circumvented the finding of the U.S. Supreme Court in Bradwell v. The State (83 US 130, 1873) in which Myra Bradwell asserted her right to a license to practice law in Illinois by virtue of her status as a United States citizen. The judges of the Illinois Supreme Court denied her application with only one judge dissenting. The US Supreme Court upheld the Illinois decision, with Justice Samuel Miller arguing that there was no agreement this right depended on citizenship.

Justice Joseph Bradley went further, in a concurrence worth quoting:

The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. The Constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood. The harmony, not to say identity, of interest and views which belong, or should belong, to the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband.”

Justice Joseph P. Bradley

It should also be noted that it was due to Bradley’s intervention that the white defendants charged in the Colfax Massacre of 1873 were freed, after he happened to attend their trial and ruled that the federal law they were charged under was unconstitutional.

The Colfax massacre occurred on Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873, in Colfax, Louisiana. An estimated 62-153 black militia men were killed while surrendering to a mob of former Confederate soldiers, members of the Ku Klux Klan and the White League. Historian Eric Foner described the massacre as the worst instance of racial violence during Reconstruction.

In response to these incidents and others throughout the South, President Grant ordered federal troops to restore order. But most of the relief was temporary. In his January 13, 1875 message to Congress, Grant complained that “every one of the Colfax miscreants goes unwhipped of justice, and no way can be found in this boasted land of civilization and Christianity to punish the perpetrators of this bloody and monstrous crime.”

Ironically, it was President Grant who had nominated Justice Bradley to the court.

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