Chief Justice, Not President, Was William Howard Taft’s Dream Job

The 27th president arguably left a more lasting mark on the nation as leader of the Supreme Court

Ex-President William Howard Taft (1857-1930) sworn in as chief justice of the United States in 1921 (Alamy)
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William Howard Taft never really wanted to be president. Politics was his wife’s ambition for him, not his own. Before he was Secretary of War or governor of the Philippines, Taft, an intellectual son and grandson of judges, spent eight blissful years as a federal appeals court judge. “I love judges, and I love courts,” President Taft said in a speech in 1911. “They are my ideals that typify on earth what we shall meet hereafter in heaven under a just God.” When Taft promoted associate Supreme Court justice Edward D. White of Louisiana to chief justice in 1910, he confessed his envy to his attorney general. “There is nothing I would have loved more than being chief justice of the United States,” he said.

Years after his humiliating third-place defeat in the 1912 presidential election, Taft finally got his dream job. In June 1921, President Warren Harding nominated Taft, age 63, to lead the Supreme Court. Taft served nine years as chief justice after his four years as president—the only person to hold both jobs. “He loathed being president,” Justice Felix Frankfurter once observed, “and being chief justice was all happiness for him.”

Americans remember presidents better than they remember chief justices, but Taft was a better judge than executive, and his judicial leadership arguably left a more lasting mark on the nation. Today, as conservatives hope the next Supreme Court appointments give them the power to remake American law and liberals look to it to check the excesses they expect from the president-elect, both live in a judicial world Taft created.

Taft was a reluctant president, accepting the 1908 Republican nomination only after his wife, Nellie, and sitting President Theodore Roosevelt persuaded him to run as his chosen successor. Roosevelt felt certain that Taft, his friend and confidant, would continue his progressive reforms. Instead, once President, Taft aligned himself with Republican conservatives and businessmen, appointed few progressives, raised tariffs instead of lowering them, and fired Roosevelt’s friend Gifford Pinchot, the nation’s chief forester and a leading conservationist. Enraged, Roosevelt ran against Taft as a third-party candidate in 1912.

Taft, never comfortable as a politician, gave almost no campaign speeches after his re-nomination, golfed frequently, and resigned himself to defeat. He finished third in the presidential election, behind winner Woodrow Wilson and Roosevelt, winning less than 25 percent of the popular vote and only eight electoral votes. Taft called his defeat “not only a landslide but a tidal wave and holocaust all rolled into one general cataclysm.”

Relieved and happy to be free of the presidency’s burdens, Taft spent the next eight years as a professor of constitutional law at Yale, gave speeches across the country, served on the National War Labor Board during World War I, and assisted Wilson with his failed campaign to convince the United States to join the League of Nations. “Being a dead politician, I have become a statesman,” he quipped.

As chief justice, Taft rejoiced in his reversal of fortune. On the bench, wrote journalist William Allen White, he resembled “one of the high gods of the world, a smiling Buddha, placid, wise, gentle, sweet.” To manage his declining health and reduce his famous girth, Taft walked three miles to work at the Supreme Court’s chamber in the U.S. Capitol building. Soon he was down to 260 pounds, a near-low for him. He rarely looked back at his years as a politician, except to bid them good riddance. “The strain, the worry, the craving for mere opportunity to sleep without interruption, the flabbiness of one’s vocal cords,” he recalled in a sympathetic October 1924 letter to John Davis, the Democratic candidate for president, “the necessity for always being in a good humor, and the obligation to smile when one would like to swear all come back to me.”

As chief justice, Taft expanded federal power more than he did during his cautious term in the White House. Taft the president had embraced a narrow view of his own powers, hesitating to act if the law or Constitution didn't give him explicit permission. But in the most important and lasting opinion he wrote as chief justice, in Myers vs. U.S., he upheld the president’s power to dismiss federal officials without the Senate’s approval. And legal challenges to his presidential legacy were rare: Only once did he recuse himself over a conflict, when a murderer whose death sentence he commuted sued for freedom.

That doesn't mean his time as chief justice didn't tie in to his presidency, though. The Taft court extended the conservative legacy he’d developed as president. Taft usually voted to uphold limitations on government’s power to regulate businesses, most famously when he struck down a punitive tax on companies that used child labor. There were exceptions: he voted to uphold an Oregon law that created a ten-hour maximum work day for women, and he dissented from a decision that struck down a minimum wage for female workers. A longtime foe of labor unions, Taft wrote a decision in Truax v. Corrigan that gave judges broad latitude to issue injunctions to stop labor disputes.

Taft had opposed Prohibition before it passed in 1919 during the Wilson Administration, thinking it’d be difficult to enforce. However, as chief justice he consistently approved strict enforcement of anti-liquor laws, even when it put him at odds with his wife. On the a 1922 trip to London, Helen Taft and the U.S. ambassador to England drank beer, while the chief justice and the ambassador’s wife stuck to crackers, cheese and fruit.

Taft’s support for the nation’s dry laws led to perhaps his most controversial civil-liberties decision. In 1928, Taft delivered the court’s opinion in Olmstead v. U.S., a 5-4 decision that allowed warrantless wiretaps of phone conversations to be used against defendants. The decision caused a national uproar – The Outlook, a leading magazine of the time, called it “the Dred Scott decision of Prohibition” -- but Taft dismissed its critics in a letter to a friend. “If they think we are going to be frightened in our effort to stand by the law and give the public a chance to punish criminals, they are mistaken, even though we are condemned for lack of high ideals,” he wrote.

Progressives found the Taft court frustrating, its hostility to social-reform legislation tragic. “Since 1920 the Court has invalidated more legislation than in fifty years preceding,” complained Felix Frankfurter, the Harvard professor and future Supreme Court justice, in 1930. Decades later, Justice Antonin Scalia praised Taft’s chief justiceship, even though many of his decision “ran counter to the ultimate sweep of history.” Olmstead, for instance, was overturned in 1967, and Taft’s rulings for business and against regulation and unions were overruled within years of his death. “Taft,” Scalia wrote, “had a quite accurate ‘vision of things to come,’ did not like them, and did his best, with consummate skill but ultimate lack of success, to alter the outcome.”

Still, Taft left a more enduring judicial legacy: He permanently increased the Supreme Court’s power and prestige. When he joined the Court, its docket was mired in a backlog up to five years deep. Lobbying as no chief justice had before, Taft convinced Congress to pass the Judges' Bill of 1925, which gave the Supreme Court greater control over its docket. It took away almost all automatic rights of appeal to the court, which allowed the justices to focus on important constitutional questions. Taft also convinced Congress to fund the construction of a Supreme Court building, so the justices could move out of the dreary Old Senate Chamber and their even drearier conference room in the Capitol’s basement. Though Taft didn’t live to see it open in 1935, the grand building reflects its independence from the other branches of government.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor called Taft a “great Chief Justice…who deserves almost as much credit as [John] Marshall for the Court’s modern-day role but who does not often receive the recognition.” She noted that 84 percent of the Taft court’s opinions were unanimous–a reflection of his attempts to craft opinions that kept the nine justices together. “Most dissents,” Taft said, “are a form of egotism. They don’t do any good, and only weaken the prestige of the court.”

By one estimate, Taft prevented about 200 dissenting votes through various forms of persuasion, both carrots and sticks. In nine years, Taft himself wrote 249 opinions for the court, dissented only about 20 times, and wrote only four written dissents. He would be frustrated to see how many dissenting opinions from his era, especially by liberal justices Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, are celebrated in history. But his goal in pushing for unanimity, notes O’Connor, was to build up the court’s authority as an “expounder of national principle” – the role it still plays today.

About Erick Trickey

Erick Trickey is a writer in Boston, covering politics, history, cities, arts, and science. He has written for POLITICO Magazine, Next City, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and Cleveland Magazine

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