Remarks of the Chief Justice
Dedication of Ohio Judicial Center
May 15, 2004
It is a great pleasure to be here in Columbus and to participate in the dedication of the Ohio Judicial Center. I understand that this is the first time that the Supreme Court of Ohio will have a building of its own, and I am sure that you and your colleagues, Chief Justice Moyer, welcome the change. The Supreme Court in Washington went through a similar experience 70 years ago, moving out of the United States Capitol where it had sat more or less at the sufferance of Congress into the present magnificent building in which it is housed. That move of ours 70 years ago, was spearheaded by an Ohioan -- Chief Justice William Howard Taft. He was one of the three Ohioans -- out of a total of 16 -- who served as Chief Justice of the United States. The others were Salmon P. Chase and Morrison R. Waite.
Salmon Chase was born in New Hampshire, but at the age of twelve he moved to Ohio to work on his uncle's farm. His uncle later became president of Cincinnati College. Chase finished its two-year curriculum in a year and then returned to his family in New Hampshire. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College, Chase headed to Washington, D.C., eventually studying law.
After passing the bar, Chase went into private practice in Cincinnati, where he became active in local politics. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1848 and served one term. In 1855 he was elected governor of Ohio. Although he was again elected to the Senate in 1860, he resigned to become President Lincoln's first Treasury Secretary.
Chase was an admirable man in some respects, but not in others. He was an able lawyer and cabinet officer, and a firm opponent of slavery. But he was also vain and egotistical -- his detractors said that there were in his trinity four persons rather than three. He was amazingly disloyal to Lincoln when, in 1864, he sought to wrest the presidential nomination away from him.
It is a sign of Lincoln's absolute magnanimity that upon the death of Chief Justice Roger Taney in the summer of 1864, he appointed Chase as Chief Justice. He said that he wanted someone who would uphold the Greenback Laws which had enabled the north to finance the war, and felt sure that Chase would do so since he had drafted the laws himself. But he worried that the Chief Justiceship would not be enough for Chase -- that his insatiable ambition to be President would not be extinguished by his new office.
Lincoln, unfortunately, was wrong on all counts. Several years after he became Chief Justice, Chase wrote the opinion for the Court holding that the Greenback Laws were unconstitutional. And his ambition for the Presidency never left him.
He authorized the submission of his name as a presidential candidate to the Republican convention in 1868, and when that convention turned to U. S. Grant, he authorized the submission of his name to the Democratic convention. There he actually received a few votes before losing to Horatio Seymour of New York, who in turn lost the election to Grant. Again in 1872, Chase made inquiries not only of the Republican convention, but of the Liberal Republican convention in Cincinnati, a small splinter group of the party. Neither one was interested.
As Chief Justice, Salmon Chase also presided over the Senate's 1868 impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. Chase died on May 7, 1873.
The next Chief Justice was Morrison R. Waite, appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant. Waite was born in Lyme, Connecticut on November 29, 1816. His father was a lawyer who rose to be the Chief Justice of Connecticut. Waite was graduated from Yale in 1837, studied law with his father for a year and then moved to Maumee City, near Toledo. He became one of Ohio's most prominent lawyers, representing a number of railroads during the railroad boom.
Waite's only national notoriety prior to his appointment to the Court was as one of three U.S. representatives to the Geneva Arbitration, which was to settle claims arising out of the Civil War, primarily between the United States and Great Britain. But Grant's route to appointing Waite to the Supreme Court was a series of bungles.
After Chief Justice Chase died in May 1873, Grant waited until the following November before offering the appointment to an old political ally, Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York. Conkling declined. Three Associate Justices were favored by various factions of Grant's administration: Justice Samuel Miller, Justice Noah Swayne -- another Ohioan -- and Justice Joseph Bradley. But in late November, President Grant decided he would not appoint anyone currently on the Court. At some point, Grant apparently offered the Chief Justiceship to two other Senators, Timothy Howe and Oliver Morton, but both declined. He then offered the post to his Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, who also declined.
Grant next suggested a "temporary" appointment for Caleb Cushing, with the understanding that Cushing would resign before Grant's term ended. When Grant's Cabinet opposed this plan, he dropped it. Grant next nominated his Attorney General, George H. Williams. But like many in Grant's administration, Williams was open to charges of corruption. His purchase of an elegant convertible carriage, called a landaulet, for his personal use with Justice Department funds earned him the nickname "Landaulet Williams" from the press. When it became clear that Williams did not have a chance of Senate confirmation, Grant asked Williams to withdraw his name -- although he remained Attorney General.
Grant then went ahead and nominated Caleb Cushing. The Nation noted that "the President has at last entered the small circle of eminent lawyers and then with great care has chosen the worst man in it." When Cushing was accused of treasonous contact with Jefferson Davis during the war, he asked Grant to withdraw his name. Finally, Grant nominated Morrison Waite, who learned of his nomination by telegram.
When Waite was confirmed in January 1874, Hamilton Fish wrote, "We had 'a time' over the Chief Justiceship . . . ." Gideon Wells was more direct: "It is a wonder that Grant did not pick up some old acquaintance, who was a stage driver or bartender for the place. We may be thankful he has done so well." A back-handed compliment if ever there was one!
When Waite took his seat, he had no experience as a judge and he had never appeared before the Supreme Court. Although Waite's inexperience and lack of familiarity with procedure made it difficult for him to win the respect of his colleagues, his kindness, humility and work ethic -- he wrote 872 opinions in his fourteen years on the Court -- ultimately won them over. Justice Samuel Miller said that Waite had a "kindliness of heart rarely if ever excelled." Unlike his predecessor, Waite refused to be considered for the 1876 Republican presidential nomination, writing to his nephew that his "duty was not to make [the office of Chief Justice] a stepping-stone to something else, but to preserve its original purity."
Waite was diligent, competent, but by no means brilliant. Indeed, one may wonder whether it is really desirable to have a "brilliant" jurist. But Waite was just what the Supreme Court needed at the time. For almost 20 years, the cloud created by the Court's Dred Scott opinion in 1857 had hung over it, and Chase's forays after the Presidential nomination had done nothing to dispel the cloud. But Waite's honesty, kindliness, and industriousness went a long way toward restoring the reputation of the Court. On March 20, 1888, Waite appeared in Court to read his opinion in the Telephone Cases, involving complex and vigorously disputed patent claims. He was too ill to do so and died three days later, after having served as Chief Justice for 14 years.
The next Ohioan to serve as Chief Justice was William Howard Taft, who was nominated by President Harding on June 30, 1921. Taft was confirmed by the Senate that same day, without having his nomination referred to committee. It is hard to imagine that happening today.
Taft was born in Cincinnati on September 15, 1857, the son and grandson of judges. Taft's father was very active politically and served as Attorney General of the United States and Secretary of War under President Grant. Taft was graduated second in his class from Yale in 1878 and attended the University of Cincinnati law school. He then held various state and federal law-related positions, including service as a judge on the Ohio Superior Court, as Solicitor General and as Judge of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati.
In 1900, President McKinley named Taft chairman of the Philippine Commission; he served as governor general of the Philippines from 1901 to 1904. He also served as the Secretary of War for President Theodore Roosevelt and oversaw construction of the Panama Canal. In 1908 he was elected President. As President, Taft made six appointments to the Supreme Court -- more than any other one-term President. Many think that when Taft named Edward White Chief Justice rather than the other obvious choice, Charles Evans Hughes, Taft did so because White was twelve years older than Hughes. Naming White gave Taft a better shot at being Chief Justice one day himself -- in spite of Thomas Jefferson's famous complaint that "few [Justices] die and none resign." On signing White's commission as Chief Justice, Taft lamented: "There is nothing I would have loved more than being Chief Justice of the United States. I cannot help seeing the irony in the fact that I, who desired that office so much, should now be signing the commission of another man."
Taft is the only person ever to serve as both President of the United States and Chief Justice, and his experience as President served him well on the Court. When he was appointed Chief Justice in 1921, the Court had fallen nearly five years behind in its docket. He resolved this caseload congestion in the Court by convincing Congress to pass the Judiciary Act of 1925 -- also known as the Certiorari Act -- which gave the Court discretion as to which cases to hear. Some members of Congress were doubtful -- why shouldn't every litigant have a right to get a decision on his case from the Supreme Court? Taft responded that in each case, there had already been one trial and one appeal. "Two courts are enough for justice," he said. To obtain still a third hearing in the Supreme Court, there should be some question involved more important than just who wins this lawsuit.
In 1922, Taft created what is now known as the Judicial Conference -- the policy-making body for the federal judiciary. But perhaps Chief Justice Taft's most lasting contribution to the Supreme Court of the United States was in convincing Congress to give the Court a building of its own.
In 1800, when the federal government moved from Philadelphia, which had been the capital for ten years, to the new capital of Washington in the District of Columbia, the White House -- then called the President's House -- was finished, and John Adams was the first President to occupy it. The Capitol building had been constructed on Capitol Hill, and was ready for Congress, though it was not nearly the building we know today as the Capitol. But no provision whatever had been made for housing the Supreme Court. Finally, at the last minute, a room in the basement of the Capitol was set aside for the third branch. For the next 135 years the Court continued to occupy various cramped quarters in the Capitol, and most Justices worked out of their homes.
In 1929, Chief Justice Taft convinced Congress that the Court should have its own building. He directed the renowned architect Cass Gilbert to design "a building of dignity and importance suitable for its use as the permanent home of the Supreme Court of the United States." Taft resigned from the Court in February 1930 because of illness and died a month later, so he did not live to see the building's completion in 1935.
You are all probably familiar with the Court's façade -- the marble plaza with steps leading up to the main portico, supported by sixteen massive Corinthian columns, flanked on either side by two large, seated marble figures. Above the pediment is carved "Equal Justice Under Law," and above that inscription is a sculptured group with three figures on either side. At the left is a figure modeled after Chief Justice Taft as a youth.
At the top of the front steps, one enters a vestibule and then the Great Hall, which leads to the courtroom. The ceiling of the Great Hall is over thirty feet high, with double rows of marble columns on each side. So dramatically different were the surroundings of the Justices in their new quarters from their old, that Justice Stone, entering the Great Hall of the new building for the first time, remarked that he felt like "a beetle entering the Temple of Karnak."
At about the same time that our Court's building was being constructed in Washington, this handsome building was going up here in Columbus. Seventy years later, this building has been beautifully refurbished to house your Court. Were he alive today, I am sure that Chief Justice Taft would be pleased to see that the Supreme Court of his home state finally has a building all to itself -- just as he would surely be pleased to see one of his great grandsons as the present governor of that state.