History, Department of

 

Date of this Version

2013

Citation

WESTERN LEGAL HISTORY VOL. 26, Nos. 1&.2, pp. 69-96.

Comments

Copyright (c) 2013 Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society.

Abstract

In 1913, two women made history when they testified before the all-white, all-male jury of the Superior Court of Yavapai County in the State of Arizona v. Juan Fernandez murder trial. Mary Woolsey, an elderly Yavapai widow, and Dolores Rodriguez, a Mexican single mother of three, established the legal precedent for allowing non-English-speaking, non-citizen women to testify in state courts in Arizona when many other western states still did not grant such privileges to indigenous residents. Woolsey and Rodriguez showed that Arizona's indigenous population were competent, if somewhat problematic, members of Arizona's body politic, and their historic involvement in the Arizona v. Fernandez trial is an important chapter in American Indian citizenship history.

Some aspects of this story are difficult to interpret, which may explain why scholars have not chosen to feature Woolsey and Rodriguez in their own studies of racial and legal history in the Southwest. For instance, although Woolsey and Rodriguez's testimony in the Arizona v. Fernandez trial established the right to testify in court for all Arizona non-citizens, both women were actually forced to testify under subpoena against their will, making a depiction of the women as civil rights actors problematic. Mary Woolsey and Dolores Rodriguez also lived largely undocumented lives, making it difficult to cast them as significant historical actors. Finally, judicial commentary regarding the landmark decision to turn away from legal precedent denying non-English speaking and non-citizen witnesses the right to testify in court is strangely silent, making it difficult to interpret Arizona justices' motives for upholding Mary Woolsey and Dolores Rodriguez as competent legal figures within the Arizona body politic. Despite these evidentiary hurdles, a compelling story emerges from the Arizona v. Fernandez transcripts and the case law submitted in the subsequent conviction appeal, Fernandez v. Arizona (1914). What follows is an essay that features a pivotal, if often overlooked, event in Arizona's legal history through the lenses of critical legal theory.