John M. Woolsey

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John Munro Woolsey (January 3, 1877 – May 4, 1945) was a United States federal judge in New York City, known "for his brilliant and poignantly phrased decisions",[1] including several important precedents in First Amendment jurisprudence.

Background and education[edit]

Born in Aiken, South Carolina to William Walton Woolsey and Katherine Buckingham Convers Woolsey, Woolsey attended private school in Englewood, New Jersey and Phillips Academy. Woolsey was a descendant of George (Joris) Woolsey, one of the earliest settlers of New Amsterdam, and Thomas Cornell (settler).[2] His half-sister, Gamel Woolsey, was a noted poet and novelist.

Woolsey received an A.B. from Yale University in 1898.[1] He was awarded an LL.B. from Columbia Law School in 1901, where he was a founder of the Columbia Law Review.

Lawyer and educator[edit]

Woolsey continued his affiliation with Columbia after receiving his degree, teaching equity and serving as a member and chairman of the law school's Board of Visitors. He also served Harvard Law School on its Advisory Commission on Research in International Law. In private practice from 1901 until 1929, John Woolsey was admiralty counsel to the French High Commission in New York City, and a member of a New York admiralty firm from 1920 until his appointment to the bench.[3]

Judicial career[edit]

On February 28, 1929, Woolsey was nominated by President Calvin Coolidge to a new seat on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.[4] He was not confirmed by the Senate, but after renomination by Coolidge's successor Herbert Hoover, was confirmed on April 29, 1929.[1]

Judge Woolsey had a number of important decisions on freedom of expression. In United States v. One Obscene Book Entitled "Married Love" he found that a work by a physician on enhancing marital sexual relations was not obscene.[5] In a similar case, United States v. One Book Entitled "Contraception", he held that a book containing information on birth control was not obscene or immoral, and therefore not subject to confiscation.[6]

Woolsey's best-known decision may have been his 1933 ruling in United States v. One Book Called Ulysses that James Joyce's novel Ulysses was not obscene and could lawfully be imported into the United States. This decision, which came about in a test case engineered by Bennett Cerf of Random House, was affirmed by a 2-1 vote of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in an opinion by Judge Augustus N. Hand. Because Cerf reprinted Woolsey's opinion in all copies of Ulysses published by his firm, the opinion has been said to be the most widely distributed judicial opinion in history.[7]

Woolsey also invalidated Executive Order 6102, an Executive Order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt "forbidding the Hoarding of Gold Coin, Gold Bullion, and Gold Certificates". His holding was on the technical grounds that the order was signed by the President, not the Secretary of the Treasury as required,[8] and forced the Roosevelt administration to issue a new order under the signature of the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. Woolsey continued to serve in senior status until his death in 1945, in New York City, aged 68.


  1. ^ a b c "John M. Woosley, Retired Jurist, 68". The New York Times. May 5, 1945.
  2. ^ Cornell, Thomas Clapp Adam and Anne Mott: their ancestors and their descendants. A.V. Haight, 1890 Retrieved November 10, 2013
  3. ^ Burak, Paul H., History of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Federal Bar Association of New York, New Jersey & Connecticut (New York, 1962), p. 14
  4. ^ "Coolidge Names Two to be Judges Here". The New York Times. March 1, 1929. p. 1.
  5. ^ United States v. One Obscene Book Entitled "Married Love", 48 F. 2d 821 (S.D.N.Y.1931)
  6. ^ United States v. One Book Entitled "Contraception", 51 F. (2d) 525 (S.D.N.Y. 1931)
  7. ^ Younger, Irving, Ulysses in Court: The Litigation Surrounding the First Publication of James Joyce's Novel in the United States (Professional Education Group transcript of Younger speech).
  8. ^ Sequels, Nov. 27, 1933, Time Magazine.


Legal offices
Preceded by
new seat
Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York
Succeeded by
seat abolished