Chief Justice William Howard Taft (1857-1930) – Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter
Chief Justice William Howard Taft (1857-1930): The Only Former President to Serve on the Supreme Court of the United States
When Chief Justice Edward White died in May 1910, President Warren G. Harding immediately turned to former President William Howard Taft, who had appointed White to the Supreme Court, to succeed White. Taft served on the Supreme Court for just less than ten years until his resignation on February 3, 1930. Charles Evans Hughes, another justice whom Taft had appointed to the Supreme Court, replaced Taft as Chief Justice, serving in that role from 1930 to 1941. This column explores William Howard Taft’s career and his Supreme Court tenure and legacy.
Taft was born on September 15, 1857, in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Alphonso Taft, a lawyer and judge who had served in President Ulysses S. Grant’s cabinet as Attorney General, and Louise (nee Torrey). Taft’s parents were demanding of their sons and Taft worked very hard at school to achieve good grades. Taft attended Woodward High School in Cincinnati, then Yale College, where he graduated second in his class. After graduating from Yale, Taft obtained his LLB from Cincinnati Law School, and then easily passed the bar exam. During law school, Taft worked for a local newspaper, where he covered the courts, and read law at his father’s law office.
Upon graduating from law school in 1880, Taft became the Assistant Prosecuting Attorney for Hamilton County, Ohio. Taft’s ambition was to become a Supreme Court justice. He did that and much more in his varied career. He remains the only person to lead both the Executive and Judicial branches of our Federal government.
He practiced law in Cincinnati after his years as prosecutor until he became a judge of the Ohio Superior Court in 1887. He then became U.S. Solicitor General and is the only former holder of that position to become President. In 1892, he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit and during part of that tenure, also served as a Professor of Law and Dean at the University of Cincinnati. In 1901, he became the Governor-General of the Philippines and then Secretary of War. (He and James Monroe are the only presidents to also have been Secretary of War.)
In 1908, when President Theodore Roosevelt did not run for a third term, Taft easily won the Republican nomination for president against the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan campaigned on a progressive platform against political privilege, using a slogan, “Shall the People Rule?” Taft adopted some of Bryan’s reform positions to appeal to liberals and progressives. During the campaign, Roosevelt inundated Taft with advice and guidance, fearing that Taft would lose to Bryan. Taft tended to ignore Roosevelt’s advice. Taft won with 51.6% of the popular vote and 321 Electoral College votes to Bryan’s 43.0% of the popular vote and 162 Electoral College votes.
In 1909, Taft became President. Taft was said to hate the presidency and was a reluctant politician, preferring law to politics. One legal legacy he left during his Presidency was his appointment of six Justices to the Supreme Court, the most by any President in our nation’s history except for Franklin Delano Roosevelt (eight) and George Washington (ten). Although Taft was best friends with President Teddy Roosevelt, Taft broke with Roosevelt on a variety of issues and the two becoming alienated over the course of Taft’s four years. During those four years, Taft and Roosevelt led the conservative and progressive wings, respectively, of the Republican Party. In 1912, unhappy with how Taft had governed the country and due to differences on antitrust and conservation issues, Roosevelt ran for President again as nominee of the Progressive Party. With Roosevelt and Taft splitting the Republican and Progressive Party vote, Woodrow Wilson won the election, making Taft a one-term President.
Taft then served as President of the American Bar Association for the bar year, 1913-14 and was the Kent Professor of Constitutional Law at Yale University from 1913-21. On June 30, 1921, Harding nominated Taft to the Chief Justice position on the Supreme Court, and the Senate confirmed Taft by voice vote with only 4 Senators voting against his nomination.
When Taft was confirmed, he achieved his lifelong professional goal of becoming a Supreme Court justice and happily served in that position, only resigning shortly before his death in 1930. Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter once remarked to Associate Justice Louis Brandeis that it was “difficult for me to understand why a man who is so good a Chief Justice…could have been so bad as President.” Taft’s court issued a number of decisions of note, including:
- Olmstead v. U.S. (1928), holding that the use of wiretapped private telephone conversations, obtained by federal agents without judicial approval and subsequently used as evidence, did not violate the Fourth and Fifth Amendments;
- Adkins v. Children’s Hosp. (1923), holding that Lochner applied and that a minimum wage act passed by Congress to protect women was invalid (Taft dissented) (Lochner v. New York was a 1905 Supreme Court decision that found the due process clause of the 14th Amendment included a right of “freedom of contract” and invalidated limits on hours of bakery employees); and,
- United States v. Schwimmer (1929), holding that a pacifist seeking to become a naturalized citizen was not eligible for citizenship.
In his Adkins dissent, Taft disagreed with the Court’s upholding of the Lochner doctrine, stating, “It is not the function of this Court to hold congressional acts invalid simply because they are passed to carry out economic views which the Court believes to be unwise or unsound.” Adkins v. Children’s Hosp., 261 U.S. 525, 562 (Dissent 1923). (In 1937, the Court overturned Lochner.) As Chief Justice, Taft also created the Judicial Conference of the United States in 1922. In 1929, Taft convinced Congress to enact legislation to construct a permanent home for the Court. Taft charged Architect Cass Gilbert to design “a building of dignity and importance suitable for its use as the permanent home of the Supreme Court of the United States.” Taft did not live to see the completion of the new Supreme Court building, but it has been the home for the Supreme Court since its completion in 1935. Taft resigned from the Supreme Court on February 3, 1930 and died on March 8, 1930.
Taft enjoyed his time on the Supreme Court of the United States. His administrative focus on reforming the Supreme Court and improving the Supreme Court’s procedures and facilities are his most lasting Supreme Court legacy. He also has the distinction of being the only person to have been both President and a Supreme Court justice.
Dan Cotter is a partner at Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd LLP and an Adjunct Professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.