William Howard Taft -I Brief Biography of Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

William Howard Taft

-I Brief Biography of Life Before the Supreme Court-

In this section you should outline the "life and times" of your chosen subject, placing emphasis on key events in that person's life that may have led them to pursue a career in law. Items you may want to touch upon are the family's legal history (if any), how (if at all) that person's ethnicity, religion, family life or other personal characteristics shaped his/her life. You should also mention key events in that individual's life that may have directed them towards a career as a jurist (e.g. Thurgood Marshall's experiences as a civil rights lawyer.)

William Howard Taft was completely unique as a Chief Justice in that he was the only former president to serve in that position. He was originally from Cincinnati, Ohio and had graduated from law school in 1880. He later served as a prosecuting attorney and a federal judge, although most of his experience after 1901 was in executive position, including Secretary of War in 1903-08 and president in 1909-13. One completely forgotten aspect of his career was that he had been the first Governor General of the Philippines in 1901 during the counterinsurgency war there, which was also the type of experience no other Chief Justice had ever had. Officially, the Philippines War ended in 1902, although counterinsurgency operations continued in Leyte and Samar until 1907 and in Mindanao against the Moros (Muslims) until 1913. Although mostly forgotten in the U.S. today, this was actually America's longest war, more than Vietnam or Afghanistan, but the number of troops stationed there fell from over 40,000 at its height to about 12,000 by 1907 (Silbey, 2007, p. 207). Even in 1911, U.S. military planners expected a general uprising in the Philippines if America ever became involved in a war with Japan or some other imperial power in Asia. Even President Theodore Roosevelt had never "been enthusiastic about the Philippines operation" and doubted that the U.S., would be able to hold these islands in the event of war with Japan (Kinzer, 2007, p. 55). Taft worked hard to end this unpopular war and restore some semblance of civilian rule in the country, during a period when torture, mass execution, concentration camps and other mass atrocities were being committed by American troops. In private, Taft was appalled at what was going on, and thought that his work there was so vital that he refused two appointments to the Supreme Court rather than leave (Mason, 1979, p. 42).

Thanks to the conciliatory policies of William Howard Taft, however, most local elites, including those represented by Emilio Aguinaldo, accommodated themselves to American rule and were "allowed to continue their economic, political and social dominance" (Silbey, p. 208). Unlike other Asians before the 1950s and 1960s, Filipinos were allowed to immigrate to the United States and enlist in the American military. When the Japanese finally invaded in 1941-42, the majority of Filipinos sides with America and fought a guerilla war against the invaders, with was never a common response of colonial subject peoples in the British, French and Dutch Empires. An important reason for this was that they had been allowed self-government modeled on the U.S. system from very early on, and both public and congressional opinion was simply never favorable to having European-style colonies (Silbey, p. 213). Taft was also personally critical of having an overseas empire or colonies, which he thought might become a threat to liberty at home, and this opposition was also noteworthy in the career of his son, Sen. Robert A. Taft.

In 1903-08, Taft was Secretary of War and oversaw the early construction work on the Panama Canal, which was also an unusual background for a future Supreme Court Chief Justice. He also had extensive diplomatic experience, such as his 1905 mission to end the war between Russia and Japan. For a man who hated politics and even claimed that it made him "sick," he certainly kept finding his way into high political office, and in reality his background was even more of the executive type than judicial (Mason, p. 43). Taft ran reluctantly for president in 1908, and won with the support of Theodore Roosevelt, who then turned on him when he concluded that Taft was too conservative and unwilling to continue his Progressive reform policies. Taft disliked being president and after his humiliating defeat by Woodrow Wilson in 1912 he took a job as a professor of constitutional law at Yale, where he remained for nine years. In 1921, when Chief Justice Edmund White died, he "began a full-time campaign to show President Harding that he was available for the job, and was rewarded with the appointment on June 30, 1921. Ever since 1889, he had been lobbying for a spot on the Supreme Court, when he had been appointed Solicitor General instead (Mason, p. 42). He remained on the Court until shortly before his death in 1930, despite having had two heart attacks in 1924 (Benson, p. 54).

-II Legal Philosophy/Outlook-

Here is where you detail your Justice's views on American jurisprudence. Were they strict constructionists or judicial activists? Did they favor more or less power for the courts in general? Were they partial toward any societal group (e.g. favor big business, the poor, religious minorities etc.). You should use some of the key decisions they participated in to bolster your points.

For William Howard Taft, the main purpose of the courts was to stand as a barrier to democracy and popular demands, particularly from organized labor, in order to protect property, business interests and economic rights. Taft's legal views were extremely conservative and he generally supported the right of business leaders "to do as they pleased," and he was also highly critical of dissenting justices, even when they were fellow conservatives (Burgon, 2004, p. 95). He was even opposed to jury trials or giving twelve citizens the power to decide on guilt or innocence, because he thought that they would be too lenient on lawbreakers. In a 1920 speech, he publicly criticized Woodrow Wilson for his beliefs in broad constructionism of the Constitution, which he called "socialistic raids upon property rights," while he thought that the liberal Justice Louis Brandeis was determined to destroy the "fundamental law" of the United States (Mason, p. 41). He thought that organized labor was always hostile to the courts and wrote in 1922 that unions had to be "hit every little while, because they are continually violating the law and depending on threats and violence to accomplish their purpose" (Mason, p. 65). His speeches and private letters regularly denounced socialists, progressives, Bolsheviks and sentimentalists like Wilson, Brandies, Charles Beard and Roscoe Pound, while he attacked social welfare and government regulations of business as promoting "dependence" and undermining individual liberties (Mason, p. 67).

Taft's most important accomplishment by far was lobbying Congress to pass the Judiciary Act of 1925, which gave the Supreme Court the power to set its own agenda. In the 1920s, the conservative majority on the Court used this power exactly as Taft had intended, to strike down state and federal laws that protected children, workers and consumers or regulated business. Like the present-day Supreme Court, the Taft Court was not simply conservative but repressive and reactionary, looking backward to the 19th Century. Taft was an extremely active Chief Justice who personally wrote 235 opinions, one-fifth of the total in 1921-30, and the other justices called him "Big Chief" (Benson, p. 55). From 1790 to 1925, the Supreme Court had voided 53 congressional acts, but in 1925030 it overturned twelve, and from Taft's viewpoint, the Court was really a kind of Super-legislature that should be very active in overturning state and federal laws. Indeed, he even regarded Herbert Hoover was too liberal or Progressive, and might appoint dangerous Leftists to the Court (Mason, p. 70).

The Judiciary Act of 1789 created the current structure of the federal judicial system by creating a district court in every state. Over the years, this system has expanded so that now states like New York and California have multiple district courts. At the time, Supreme Court justices also acted as circuit judges when they were not in Washington since the workload was generally light. Before the creation of Courts of Appeal, the Supreme Court was obligated to decide all cases brought before it" (Buchman,2003, p. 1). When the U.S. was an agrarian nation with a small population this system functioned well enough, but in the urban, industrialized society after the Civil War, "largely unforeseen pressures were thrust on the courts and the legal profession" (Kastenmeier and Remington, p. 61). In 1891 Congress created nine intermediate federal courts that were later increased to eleven, although the workload expanded even faster. The U.S. Courts of Appeals was designed to facilitate efficiency and integrity within U.S. District Courts as well as to act as a check and balance system against these courts. Without the Courts of Appeals, the district…

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