Justice Alito resurrects the ghosts of witch trials past in the draft opinion in Dobbs. He relies on the authority of Lord Hale, infamous English jurist who hanged women as witches, created the marital rape exception, and crafted the jury instruction to warn against believing women in rape allegations. He also features the Salem-esque trial of Eleanor Beare and her punishment by pummeling with eggs and turnips in the town square. More on Eleanor in part 2 of this post.
When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, in a draft opinion obtained and published this week by Politico, detailed his justifications for overturning Roe v. Wade, he invoked a surprising name given the case’s subject. In writing about abortion, a matter inextricably tied to a woman’s control over her body, Alito chose to quote from Sir Matthew Hale, a 17th-century English jurist whose writings and reasonings have caused enduring damage to women for hundreds of years.
The so-called marital rape exemption — the legal notion that a married woman cannot be raped by her husband — traces to Hale. So does a long-used instruction to jurors to be skeptical of reports of rape. So, in a way, do the infamous Salem witch trials, in which women (and some men) were hanged on or near Gallows Hill.
Hale’s influence in the United States has been on the wane since the 1970s, with one state after another abandoning his legal principles on rape. But Alito’s opinion resurrects Hale, a judge who was considered misogynistic even by his era’s notably low standards. ***
Hale became Lord Chief Justice of England in 1671.***
Courts have long leaned on precedents established by old cases and the scholarship of legal authorities from centuries gone by. But what happens when you trace citations back to their ancient source? In Hale’s case, you sometimes find a man conceiving precepts out of thin air. Other times it was the opposite, as he clung to notions that were already becoming anachronistic in the last half of the 17th century.
Consider the marital rape exemption. In “Pleas of the Crown,” Hale wrote, “The husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband which she cannot retract.” So, according to Hale, marriage, for a woman, amounts to contractual forfeit, in which she loses legal protection or recourse should her husband sexually assault her.
Hale’s pronouncement became the accepted common law and served as foundation in the United States for immunizing a husband accused of raping his wife. And where did Hale’s pronouncement come from? What did he base it upon? Who knows? “Hale appears to have been the first to articulate what later would become an accepted legal principle, that a husband cannot be charged with raping his wife,” according to a footnote in one law review article. Another law review article, titled “The Marital Rape Exemption: Evolution to Extinction,” called Hale’s pronouncement “an unsupported, extrajudicial statement” lacking in authority.
Starting in the 1970s, states began to abandon the marital rape exemption, in whole or in part.***
In “Pleas of the Crown,” Hale called rape a “most detestable crime.” Then, in words quoted many times since, he wrote, “It must be remembered, that it is an accusation easy to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent.”
Hale evoked the fear of the false accuser — and made for that fear a legal frame, which lasted for more than 300 years. In weighing the evidence in cases of alleged rape, jurors (all men, in Hale’s time and for long after) needed to consider a series of factors, Hale wrote. Did the woman cry out? Did she try to flee? Was she of “good fame” or “evil fame”? Was she supported by others? Did she make immediate complaint afterward?
Hale’s words and formulation became a standard feature of criminal trials in the United States, with jurors instructed by judges to be especially wary of allegations of rape.***
Then there was Hale’s role in what today is synonymous with the perversion of justice: witch trials.
In 1662, Hale presided at a jury trial in Bury St. Edmunds in which two women, Amy Denny and Rose Cullender, were accused of being witches. In a book on this case, “A Trial of Witches,” authors Ivan Bunn and Gilbert Geis wrote that by 1662, “belief in witches was in retreat in England.” Hale, however, was not part of that retreat. He believed witches were real. “Hale represented not a mainstream position but rather one rapidly becoming anachronistic,” Bunn and Geis wrote.
What’s more, Hale instructed the jurors that witches were real.