Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (1777-1864) – Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter

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Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, the fourth Chief Justice, served thirty-four-and-a half years in that role. Roger B. Taney, who succeeded Marshall, served for twenty-eight-and-a- half years, including during almost the entirety of the Civil War. (Marshall and Taney are, respectively, the first- and second- longest serving Chief Justices.)  

Early Life and Career

Roger B. Taney was born in Calvert County, Maryland, on March 17, 1777. He was born and raised Catholic by his parents, Michael and Monica. At the time, American Catholics represented a distinct religious minority.  Until Taney was fifteen years old, his education consisted of private schools and tutors. At the age of fifteen, he entered Dickinson College, obtaining his B.A. in 1795. Taney chose a career in law and read law at the law office of Jeremiah Townley Chase, a chief justice of the General Court of Maryland. In 1799, Taney was admitted to the bar.

Taney was elected to the Maryland House of Representatives in 1799, and served one term before returning to private practice. He married Francis Scott Key’s sister in 1806 and had a large family of seven children.  Considered one of the promising young lawyers in Maryland, Taney fluctuated between governmental service and private practice over the course of his career. He was a Jacksonian Democrat.

After building a very successful law practice, Taney was elected Attorney General of Maryland in 1827. In 1831, he resigned from his state position first to become Secretary of War, then U.S. Attorney General. Taney expressed his anti-abolitionist views in two opinions as U.S. Attorney General. In 1833, Jackson made a recess appointment of Taney to Secretary of the Treasury.  However, the Senate formally rejected Taney’s nomination when back in session, at least in part due to the divisive nature of his views on slavery, and Taney returned to private practice in Maryland.  Taney has the distinction of being the first Cabinet nominee to be rejected by the Senate.

Nomination to Supreme Court

A defiant Jackson next nominated Taney in January 1835 for the position of Associate Justice to replace Gabriel Duvall, who was retiring. The Senate rejected the nomination and the position remained open for more than one year. When John Marshall died after a stage coach accident on July 6, 1835, Jackson submitted Taney’s name for Chief Justice on December 28, 1835. Taney was confirmed by the Senate on March 15, 1836, after a long and heated opposition. The fact that Jacksonian Democrats took control of the Senate after the 1834 elections was a key distinction between this final nomination and Taney’s previous nominations for federal office and likely led to his long-awaited successful confirmation. Taney took his seat on March 15, 1836, the same day he was confirmed, and would preside until his death on October 12, 1864.

The Taney Court

The Taney Court issued a series of decisions that substantially narrowed the role of federal government in economic regulation matters. Unlike Marshall, he and other Jackson Supreme Court appointees favored the powers of the states over the powers of the federal government.  The Taney Court also issued opinions in a number of noteworthy cases, such as the Charles River Bridge and Amistad cases. However, the Taney Court is remembered primarily for the 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, holding by a 7-2 margin that Congress had no authority or power to prevent the spread of slavery into federal territories and that, at the time of the country’s founding, African Americans were not United States citizens nor was such citizenship contemplated. One justice, Benjamin Robbins Curtis, was so upset by the decision that he left the bench.

Conclusion

Roger Taney’s legacy will always be tied to the Dred Scott decision. When the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in 1865 to commission funds for a bust of Taney to be placed in the Supreme Court along his predecessors, Senator Charles Sumner argued against it, calling the Dred Scott decision “more thoroughly abominable than anything of the kind in the history of the courts.” Despite his dissent in the Dred Scott decision, however, Justice Curtis referred to Taney as a “man of singular purity of life and character.” Justice Antonin Scalia, in his dissent in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, referring to Taney’s “great Chief Justiceship,” apparently agreed with Curtis.

Taney, the twenty-fourth justice and fifth chief, was the first of thirteen Catholic justices. Currently, five justices are Catholic. 

Dan Cotter is a Partner at Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd LLP and an Adjunct Professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies.  The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to Butler Rubin or any of its clients, or John Marshall.

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