Taft, William H. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Taft was the only person who became both president of the United States and a chief justice of the United States. As president, he appointed six members to the Court, including a chief justice.

Taft came from a distinguished Ohio family. His father, Alphonso Taft, served as secretary of war and then attorney general in President Ulysses S. Grant’s cabinet. Even as a youth, Taft wanted to become a chief justice. He graduated from Yale University in 1878 and from Cincinnati Law School in 1880.Harding, Warren G.;nominations to the Court

William H. Taft

(Deane Keller/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Taft was assistant prosecuting attorney of Hamilton County, Ohio, from 1881 to 1883. He was elected to the Ohio superior court in 1887. President Benjamin Harrison appointed Taft U.S. solicitor general in 1890 and later named him to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court. In 1900 President William McKinley appointed Taft to head a commission to end U.S. military rule in the Philippine islands. In 1901 Taft became the first U.S. civil governor of the Philippines. Taft declined President Theodore Roosevelt’s offers to appoint him to the Supreme Court as an associate justice, pleading the need to finish his work in the Philippines. In reality, he was holding out for appointment as chief justice. Taft eventually served Roosevelt as secretary of war. He also oversaw construction of the Panama Canal.

As President

In 1908 Roosevelt lobbied for Taft’s nomination as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate. Taft defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan to become the twenty-seventh president of the United States. To him, being president was an honor, but his ambition was to become chief justice. During his presidency, he appointed six justices more than any president since George Washington. He appointed Horace H. Lurton,Lurton, Horace H. Charles Evans Hughes,Hughes, Charles Evans Edward D. White,White, Edward D. Willis Van Devanter,Van Devanter, Willis Joseph R. Lamar,Lamar, Joseph R. and Mahlon PitneyPitney, Mahlon. He appointed the sixty-six-year-old White chief justice, hoping he would die in office and thus create the opportunity for the next president to appoint him chief justice. White died in May of 1921. His death led the way for Taft’s appointment as chief justice.

Taft sought reelection in 1912. However, his reelection bid failed when former President Roosevelt split with the Republican Party and launched his own candidacy under the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party banner. The split divided the Republican vote, helping Democrat Woodrow Wilson win the election. In 1913 Taft became a professor of law at Yale University.

As Chief Justice

In 1921 President Warren G. Harding, a Republican, appointed Taft chief justice to replace White, who had died. White, who was half-blind and deaf, stayed in office so that a Republican president could appoint Taft chief justice. Taft inherited a strongly divided Court with a rapidly growing backlog of cases. Under his leadership, the Court’s operations were streamlined. The reforms included reducing the number of allowable appeals, simplifying Court procedures and rules, and speeding up judicial decisions. In 1922 Taft created the Judicial ConferenceJudicial Conference of the United States to coordinate the work of the federal judiciary’s many courts.

Taft’s judicial and presidential decisions earned him a reputation as a learned constitutional conservative with a scrupulous respect for property rights. However, Taft acknowledged the need for ordered change to alleviate social and economic inequities. For Taft, the law was a tool to control societal change. He advocated using the strong arm of the judiciary to resist the attacks of unrestrained popular power. Taft thought the role of the judiciary was to balance the U.S. constitutional system that distributed power to the different branches of the government. Taft believed the Court was best qualified to adjust judicial machinery and legal rules to society’s current needs.

While Taft was chief justice, Congress enacted the Judges Act of 1922, which helped relieve the burgeoning workload of the Court. Taft’s masterstroke, however, was his lobbying Congress to pass the Judges Act of 1925. It gave the Court greater power to decide which cases it would hear and allowed it to give prompt attention to constitutional questions.

Taft said one of the most significant opinions he ever authored for the majority was Myers v. United States[case]Myers v. United States[Myers v. United States] (1926). The decision upheld a president’s authority to remove a postmaster without the consent of the Senate. Taft repeatedly sought to minimize dissent by “massing the Court” into a conservative majority. His conservative views contrasted sharply with the liberal philosophies of Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis D. Brandeis. Late in his tenure as chief justice, Taft was increasingly frustrated with the dissents of Holmes and Brandeis, especially in labor-management disputes and cases involving the prohibition of liquor. Taft believed dissenting opinions unnecessarily slowed the work of the courts. As chief justice, Taft wrote 253 of the 1,596 opinions delivered by the Court between 1921 and 1930. Taft also successfully lobbied Congress to allocate funds for construction of the first Supreme Court building.

Taft’s major contribution to the Court and the nation’s legal system was in innovations in judicial administration rather than major shifts in legal thought or philosophy. Some historians rank Taft on a par with Oliver Ellsworth, who created the Judiciary Act of 1789 that organized the U.S. judicial system. Taft persuaded Congress to give the Court virtually unlimited discretion to decide which cases it would review. Some historians call Taft the first“modern” chief justice because he successfully expanded and redefined the duties of the chief justice.

Further Reading
  • Burton, David H. Taft, Holmes, and the 1920’s Court: An Appraisal. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1998.
  • Burton, David H. William Howard Taft in the Public Service. Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 1986.
  • Cushman, Clare, ed. The Supreme Court Justices--Illustrated Biographies, 1789-1993. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1993.
  • Mason, Alpheus Thomas. William Howard Taft: Chief Justice. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1964.
  • Ragan, Allen E. Chief Justice Taft. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio Historical Society, 1938.
  • Renstrom, Peter G. The Taft Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Shoemaker, Rebecca S. The White Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.

Chief justice

Housing of the Court

Judicial activism

Moore, Alfred

Nominations to the Court

Presidential powers

Categories: History