State v. Rhodes (1868)

US Criminal Law

State v. Rhodes
‘Spanking’ by Norman Rockwell

Drawing the line between judicial governance of the family unit, or in the very least of cases, domestic relationships, was a task discussed in a case dating back to 1868, in which a spouse was prone to seek reparation in the criminal courts when her husband struck her in a manner designed to enforce compliance at a time when women and children’s rights were quite literally unheard of.

Having suffered three blows of the defendant’s switch, which by law could be no wider than a man’s thumb, (hence the phrase ‘rule of thumb’), the defendant was indicted for assault and battery before the North Carolina Supreme Court, on grounds that his actions were unprovoked and therefore unlawful, and upon which the court was tasked with an examination of leading case precedent in order to ‘draw the line’ as to when they were entitled to probe further into such apparently trifle matters.

In the first instance, the court turned to State v. Hussey, in which the court had recently held that:

“[A] wife may be a witness against her husband for felonies perpetrated, or attempted to be perpetrated on her, and we would say for an assault and battery which inflicted or threatened a lasting injury or great bodily harm; but in all cases of a minor grade she is not.”

Before reviewing State v. Black, in which the court had more recently held that:

“A husband is responsible for the acts of his wife, and he is required to govern his household, and for that purpose the law permits him to use towards his wife such a degree of force as is necessary to control an unruly temper and make her behave herself; and unless some permanent injury be inflicted, or there be an excess of violence, or such a degree of cruelty as shows that it is inflicted to gratify his own bad passions, the law will not invade the domestic forum or go behind the curtain.”

While also choosing to venture further into the use of physical discipline not only upon wives, but children, both at home and in the school system, where the court gave weight to State v. Pendergrass, in which the court earlier held that:

“[T]eachers exceed the limits of their authority when they cause lasting mischief; but act within the limits of it, when they inflict temporary pain.”

And so with a brief review of existing legal opinion, much of which was in a state of conflict when it came to both the use of ‘correctional’ force, and the means with which it could be dispensed, the court insisted that without further evidence of argument to the contrary, they were reluctant, if not powerless, to delve beyond the facade of marital or educational affairs unless there was compelling evidence that the injuries complained of were to prove lasting and detrimental to either party’s health, thus the case was dismissed in full while the court rightly or wrongly held that:

“Every household has and must have, a government of its own, modelled to suit the temper, disposition and condition of its inmates.”