Wickersham, George Woodward
Also found in: Encyclopedia.
Wickersham, George Woodward
As U.S. attorney general from 1909 to 1913, George Woodward Wickersham was an aggressive enforcer of federal antitrust laws. Late in his career, he headed a commission that conducted the first comprehensive national investigation of the U.S. criminal justice system.
Wickersham was born on September 19, 1858, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He attended Lehigh University from 1873 to 1875 and received a bachelor of laws degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1880. Before he graduated, he was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. He practiced for two years in Philadelphia before moving to New York City where he joined the established law firm of Strong and Cadwalader. Wickersham became a partner in the firm four years later.
President William Howard Taft appointed Wickersham attorney general in March 1909. Wickersham helped draft the Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1913, that authorized Congress to levy an Income Tax. He concentrated his efforts on prosecuting monopolistic corporations for antitrust violations under the Sherman Act (15 U.S.C.A. § 1 et seq. ). In Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, 221 U.S. 1, 31 S. Ct. 502, 55 L. Ed. 619 (1911), and other important antitrust cases, he participated in the oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wickersham also became the first attorney general to use consent decrees, which allow defendants to agree to negotiated settlements, without resort to court trials. Nineteen of forty-seven suits begun by Wickersham ended in such decrees.
After leaving office in 1913, Wickersham returned to his law practice. In 1915 he attended the New York Constitutional Convention and chaired its Judiciary Committee. After the U.S. entry into World War I, President woodrow wilson appointed Wickersham to the War Trade Board.
Wickersham is best remembered, however, for heading the National Commission of Law Observance and Law Enforcement, which came to be known as the Wickersham Commission. President herbert hoover named the commission to investigate the rise in crime and to determine whether, given the level of gangland violence, repeal of Prohibition was needed.
"We expect legislation to conform to public opinion, not public opinion to yield to legislation."
—George W. Wickersham
The commission, which included Roscoe Pound, the noted legal scholar and court reformer, could not agree on the Prohibition issue, but its fourteen-volume report revealed disturbing features in the U.S. criminal justice system. It brought to public attention the use of "third-degree" interrogation methods against criminal suspects and the need for more professional police forces. In addition, it condemned the existing prison system and advocated the use of Probation and Parole as humane solutions to crime.
Wickersham completed his public service in 1932 as president of the International Arbitration Tribunal under the Young Plan, which in 1929 had negotiated the reparations to be paid by Germany for World War I.
Wickersham died on January 25, 1936, in New York City.