Justice  /  Book Review

The Architect of Our Divided Supreme Court

100 years ago, Chief Justice William Howard Taft made the Court more efficient and more powerful, marking a turning point whose effects are still being felt.

William Howard Taft was a lawyer and a judge before he became President, and he was a lawyer and a judge after he was President. He was born in Ohio in 1857, the year the Supreme Court decided Dred Scott, and went to Yale before studying at the Cincinnati Law School. He’d served three years on Ohio’s superior court when, in 1890, he became the youngest ever U.S. Solicitor General. He argued eighteen cases before the Supreme Court, and won fifteen. In 1892, he was appointed as a federal judge for the Sixth Circuit. While serving as governor of the Philippines, he was twice offered a position on the Supreme Court; he declined both times. Elected President in 1908, he failed to win reëlection in 1912, after which he joined the faculty of Yale Law School. His best-known academic work is a series of lectures published, in 1916, as “Our Chief Magistrate and His Powers,” a critique of the Presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson masquerading as what Taft described as a “careful study from an unbiased standpoint of the historian and the jurist.”

Taft had long wanted to restructure the federal judiciary, and he was also keen to defend the Constitution from what he considered to be the excesses of Progressivism. In 1913, when Charles Beard published “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States,” arguing that the Framers had, in 1787, crafted a system of government designed to protect their own property interests, Taft denounced this interpretation as both preposterous and dangerous. And when Wilson nominated the nation’s leading Progressive lawyer, Louis Brandeis, to the Court, in 1916, Taft vigorously opposed the nomination. “It is one of the deepest wounds that I have had as an American and a lover of the Constitution and a believer in progressive conservatism, that such a man as Brandeis could be put on the Court,” Taft wrote, calling Brandeis a muckraker, a hypocrite, and a socialist. He solicited the signatures of six other former presidents of the American Bar Association for a letter that he wrote opposing Brandeis’s nomination. (Much of the objection to Brandeis was antisemitic; much was political.) “I think as ill of WHT’s morals now as of his intellect,” Brandeis wrote to his wife in 1910. Privately, Brandeis referred to the walrus-mustached Taft, who tipped the scales at about three hundred pounds, as “the fat man.”