Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court, 1819-1828
John Woodworth was born on November 12, 1768 in Schodack, Rensselaer County, New York. He graduated from Yale in 1788, and studied law in the Albany office of John Lansing, Jr., who later became Chancellor of New York. He was admitted to the bar at the first session of the Court of Common Pleas held in Troy, New York, in 1791 and set up a law office in Troy. He successfully represented the defendant, Caulkins, in the landmark breach of promise case, Johnson v. Caulkins. Woodworth was appointed Surrogate of Rensselaer County, a position he held until 1804, when he served for four years as Attorney General of the State of New York. Woodworth represented Rensselaer County in the Assembly in 1803 and he served in the New York State Senate from 1804 to 1807.
By L. 1811, ch 150, Woodworth and William P. Van Ness were directed “to arrange the laws of a general and permanent nature systematically in divisions under proper heads, with such marginal notes as appeared to be best calculated for public information.” Published in 1813, the work was “among the most valuable expositions of the laws of this State; they oftentimes, by enumerating the various English and Colonial acts which contained like provisions, embrace a succinct history of the statutes to which they refer. Even at the present day the history of many legislative measures may be more easily gathered from this revision than from any other single work; and it remains a profound example of faithful professional service” (23 Alb. L.J. 148 ).
In 1819, John Woodworth was appointed an Associate Justice of the New York State Supreme Court of Judicature. He was a delegate to the 1821 Convention to revise the New York Constitution and, under the terms of that Constitution, was required to leave office on January 29, 1823. Under the newly-adopted Constitution, he again became a member of the Supreme Court of Judicature on February 6, 1823, and served until 1828. Justice Woodworth wrote the Court’s opinion in Jackson ex dem. People v Lervey (1826) in which the Supreme Court held that the child of Peter Stringerland, a slave and soldier who died in the Revolutionary War, could inherit land granted to his father for services in the Revolutionary War.
Justice Woodworth served on the New York Supreme Court until 1828 when he reached the age of 60, the mandatory retirement age under the 1821 Constitution. He continued to practice law, and authored Reminiscences of Troy from its Settlement in 1790 till 1807 (Albany, 1855). He died on June 1, 1858 in Albany, New York.
“The Supreme Court of New York under the Constitution of 1777.” 23 Medico-Legal Journal 126 (1905-1906).