''Hodges v. United States'' was a decision by the United States Supreme Court limiting the power of Congress to make laws under the Thirteenth Amendment. Three White men had been convicted in the Eastern Arkansas District Court for conspiring against Black sawmill workers. The statute used to convict the men prohibits conspiracy to deprive American citizens of their Constitutional liberties, including the right to make contracts. The Supreme Court overturned the conviction, holding that that Congress did not have the right to intervene against racially motivated interference with labor contracts.
== District Courts ==
On 8 May 1903, Arkansas Attorney General William G. Whipple wrote to U.S. Attorney General Philander C. Knox to announce (and request funding for) investigation of a “white-capping” case. Whipple wrote that an “inferior class of white men feeling themselves unable to compete with colored tenants combined to drive them out of the country.” Knox approved the investigation, responding that the Department of Justice was “alive to the aggressive attitude of such organized bands as those to which you refer, and determined to meet such emergencies with proper and decisive action”.〔Karlan, “Contracting the Thirteenth Amendment” (2005), p. 785.〕
By October 1903, a grand jury had indicted two groups of White men accused of white-capping. The first case, filed as ''United States v. Morris'', involved a group of 11 men accused of targeting sharecroppers. The second, ''United States v. Maples'', accused 15 men of intimidating Black workers at a lumber mill in Whitehall, Arkansas. The case against them was made primarily under two statutes of the U.S. Code.〔Karlan, “Contracting the Thirteenth Amendment” (2005), p. 786.〕
§1977 gives “all persons” in the U.S. the same right to make contracts “as is enjoyed by white citizens” :
All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every state and territory to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, penalties, taxes, licenses, and exactions of every kind, and to no other.
§5508, originating with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and modified by the Enforcement Act of 1870, outlaws conspiracy to deprive citizens of their Constitutional freedoms:
SEC. 5508. If two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same; or if two or more persons go in disguise on the highway, or on the premises of another, with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege so secured, they shall be fined not more than five thousand dollars and imprisoned not more than ten years, and shall, moreover, be thereafter ineligible to any office or place of honor, profit or trust created by the Constitution or laws of the United States.
The defendants filed demurrers arguing that these laws infringed on states' rights. These were overruled by Judge Jacob Trieber in federal district court. Trieber acknowledged that, particularly in light of the ''Civil Rights Cases'' (1872), the Fourteenth Amendment could only be invoked to redress inequality of state actors. Citing the decision of Judge Noah Swayne in ''U. S. v. Rhodes'' (1866), Trieber invoked the Thirteenth Amendment and held that the right to make contracts was a “fundamental” right.〔Karlan, “Contracting the Thirteenth Amendment” (2005), pp. 787–789.〕
The state could obtain no conviction in ''Morris'', unable to produce solid evidence even though, in Whipple's words, “the jurors, as well as the Court, were convinced we had indicted the right men”. Of the 15 accused in ''Maples'', the jury convicted 3: William Clampit, Wash McKinney, and Reuben Hodges.〔Karlan, “Contracting the Thirteenth Amendment” (2005), pp. 789–790.〕 The three men convicted in ''Morris'' appealed their case (now ''Hodges v. United States''), which the Supreme Court accepted in March 1904.〔
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