Chief Justice William Howard Taft

Chief Justice William Howard Taft joined the U.S. Supreme Court on July 11, 1921, replacing Chief Justice Edward Douglass White. Taft was born on September 15, 1857 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He attended Yale and graduated second in his class in 1878. Two years later, Taft graduated from the Cincinnati Law School. He briefly served as a prosecutor and a federal tax collector in the early 1880s. Taft became a judge in the Ohio state court system in 1887.

Three years later, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Taft as U.S. Solicitor General. He then served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit from 1892 to 1900, while teaching law at the University of Cincinnati during the last few years of the 19th century. Taft began the 20th century by working as an administrator in the Philippines, which recently had been acquired in the Spanish-American War. In 1904, he joined the cabinet of President Theodore Roosevelt as Secretary of War. He briefly served as Provisional Governor of Cuba in 1906.

Taft ran as the Republican Party nominee in the 1908 presidential election, in which he defeated William Jennings Bryan. He became the 27th U.S. President on March 4, 1909, and he remains the only former President who served on the U.S. Supreme Court. Taft spent just a single term in the White House, losing his reelection bid in 1912 to Woodrow Wilson. Upon leaving the Presidency, he returned to private life and became a law professor at Yale.

On June 30, 1921, President Warren G. Harding nominated Taft to the Chief Justice seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on the same day in a 60-4 vote, and he took the judicial oath about two weeks later. Taft reportedly had harbored the ambition to become Chief Justice since before he became President. Unfortunately for him, he would enjoy the achievement for less than a decade.

Taft penned one of his most memorable opinions in Myers v. U.S. in 1926, which involved the constitutional separation of powers. The former White House resident wrote that the President has an "exclusive power" to remove executive officers, unfettered by Congressional constraints. While the Court has carved out exceptions to this rule, it reaffirmed the general principle of Myers as recently as 2020.

In other cases, Taft took some views that sound harsh to modern readers. He wrote for the Court in finding that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial did not apply in Puerto Rico and upholding racial segregation in public schools as applied to Chinese-American children. Taft also struck down a federal law that penalized businesses for using child labor, believing that Congress had improperly invaded a sphere of state authority. However, he dissented when the Court invalidated a minimum wage law for women in the District of Columbia.

Taft left the Supreme Court on February 3, 1930 and died barely a month later on March 8, 1930. He became the first Supreme Court Justice (and the first President) to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes replaced him on the Court.

Selected Opinions by Chief Justice Taft:

Olmstead v. U.S. (1928)

Topic: Search & Seizure

Wiretapping was not a search or seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. (This case was overruled by Katz v. U.S. in 1967.)

Gong Lum v. Rice (1927)

Topic: Equal Protection

A child of Chinese blood who is a citizen of the U.S. is not denied the equal protection of the law by being classed by the state among the colored races who are assigned to public schools separate from those provided for the whites when equal facilities for education are afforded to both classes.

U.S. v. General Electric Co. (1926)

Topic: Patents

In licensing another person to make, use, and sell their invention, a patentee may impose the condition that sales by the licensee must be at prices fixed by the licensor.

Myers v. U.S. (1926)

Topic: Separation of Powers; Government Agencies

The President has the exclusive power of removing executive officers of the United States whom he has appointed by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.

Ex Parte Grossman (1925)

Topic: Separation of Powers

Complete independence and separation between the three branches are not attained or intended.

Carroll v. U.S. (1925)

Topic: Search & Seizure

The Fourth Amendment recognizes a necessary difference between a search for contraband in a store, dwelling, or other structure for the search of which a warrant may readily be obtained, and a search of a ship, wagon, automobile, or other vehicle that may be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the warrant must be sought.

Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co. (1922)

Topic: Taxes; Powers of Congress

An act of Congress that is clearly designed to penalize (and thereby discourage or suppress) conduct that is reserved by the Constitution to be exclusively regulated by the states cannot be sustained under the federal taxing power by calling the penalty a tax.

Balzac v. Porto Rico (1922)

Topic: Criminal Trials & Prosecutions

The provisions of the Constitution guaranteeing a jury trial in all criminal prosecutions do not apply to a territory belonging to the U.S. that has not been incorporated into the Union, such as Puerto Rico.