Chief Justice Roger Taney

Chief Justice Roger Taney joined the U.S. Supreme Court on March 28, 1836, replacing Chief Justice John Marshall. Taney was born on March 17, 1777 on a plantation in Calvert County, Maryland. He attended Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, graduating as the valedictorian in 1795. Taney returned to Maryland to study law and was admitted to the bar in 1799. He briefly served in the Maryland House of Delegates around the same time.

In 1816, Taney joined the Maryland State Senate for a five-year term. He later served as Attorney General of Maryland from 1827 to 1831, after which he entered the national stage. President Andrew Jackson appointed him as U.S. Attorney General, a position that he held for the next two years. (Taney also briefly served as acting U.S. Secretary of War.) In 1833, he became U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. The Senate refused to confirm Taney for this position, though, so he left after just nine months. He was the first cabinet nominee whom the Senate rejected.

On January 15, 1835, Jackson nominated Taney to the U.S. Supreme Court to replace Associate Justice Gabriel Duvall. This nomination stalled after the Senate postponed its consideration on March 3 in a 24-21 vote. Jackson then nominated Taney for the Chief Justice seat on December 28, 1835. The Senate confirmed him on March 15, 1836 in a 29-15 vote, and he took the judicial oath about two weeks later.

Taney spent nearly three decades at the helm of the highest tribunal. However, his tenure is largely overshadowed by a single decision that is often considered the worst in Supreme Court history. Taney wrote the lead opinion in the 1857 case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, holding that slaves were property under the Fifth Amendment and that both enslaved and free African-Americans could not be U.S. citizens. His sweeping opinion also contained a brief passage in which some scholars have seen the seeds of substantive due process. This deeply controversial doctrine has served purposes as diverse as protecting business interests and shielding individual privacy rights.

Among Taney’s other notable opinions was Luther v. Borden, an 1849 case that limited the powers of the judicial branch in an early application of the political question doctrine. Taney wrote that the Court should not decide a controversy involving the Guarantee Clause in Article IV of the Constitution, which provides that the federal government must guarantee a republican form of government to every state. He also penned the majority opinion in the 1837 case of Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge, weighing private property rights against the public good.

Taney stayed on the Court for most of the Civil War, during which he opposed various measures taken by President Abraham Lincoln. For example, he dissented in the Prize Cases of 1863, when the Court upheld the blockade of southern ports ordered by Lincoln. Shortly before the war ended, Taney died on October 12, 1864 in Washington, D.C. and was buried in Frederick, Maryland. Chief Justice Salmon Portland Chase replaced him on the Supreme Court.

Selected Opinions by Chief Justice Taney:

Ableman v. Booth (1859)

Topic: Role of Courts

No state can authorize one of its judges or courts to exercise judicial power within the jurisdiction of another and independent government, including the federal government.

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

Topic: Due Process

An act of Congress that deprives a citizen of the United States of his liberty or property merely because he came or brought his property into a particular territory of the United States could hardly be dignified with the name of due process of law.

Gayler v. Wilder (1850)

Topic: Patents

Prior invention and use did not preclude a subsequent inventor from taking out a patent when a person had made and used an article similar to the patented invention but did not make their discovery public and did not test it to discover its usefulness, after which it was forgotten or abandoned.

Luther v. Borden (1849)

Topic: Role of Courts

The question of whether or not a majority of those persons entitled to suffrage voted to adopt a constitution cannot be settled in a judicial proceeding.

Proprietors of Charles River Bridge v. Proprietors of Warren Bridge (1837)

Topic: Property Rights & Land Use

While the rights of private property are sacredly guarded, the community also has rights, and the happiness and wellbeing of every citizen depend on their faithful preservation.