The Incomparable Chief Justiceship of William Howard Taft
187 Pages Posted: 25 Jun 2020 Last revised: 14 Jul 2020
Date Written: May 31, 2020
William Howard Taft was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1921 through 1930. This paper, excerpted from the forthcoming Volume X of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise History of the Supreme Court of the United States, chronicles and evaluates the incomparable contributions of Taft during the period. The paper is forthcoming in the Michigan State Law Review.
Taft played three roles on the Court during the 1920s. He was a Justice, a Chief Justice, and a prodigious judicial reformer. The paper evaluates his performance in Taft’s contributions to each of these roles, which Taft occupied with exceptional vigor and competence. The paper gives special attention to Taft’s creation of a new Supreme Court building; to Taft’s influence on the selection of lower court federal judges; to Taft’s establishment of the Judicial Conference of Senior Circuit Judges, which fundamentally altered the structure of the federal judiciary; and to Taft’s inspired advocacy for the Act of February 13, 1925, which reconfigured the Supreme Court from a simple tribunal of last resort into a manager of the system of federal law.
As a former President, Taft imagined the Chief Justice as the supervisor of the Judicial Branch, in much the same way as the President was the supervisor of the Executive Branch. In so doing, Taft profoundly altered the office of the Chief Justice. The paper discusses the tensions implicit in Taft’s efforts to import into the American constitutional order an office approximating an English Lord Chancellor, responsible for the administration of justice.
Keywords: William Howard Taft, Judicial Reform, Judges' Bill, Judicial Conference, Legal History
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