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Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney (1777-1864)

Taney's legal career in the Supreme Court

An Introduction Of The Man

The fifth chief justice of the United States, Roger Brooke Taney was born in Calvert County, Maryland. After graduating from Dickinson College, Taney began practicing law in Frederick, Maryland, later moving to Baltimore. Appointed attorney general of the United States by President Andrew Jackson in 1831, Taney influenced opposition to rechartering the Second Bank of the United States. Although he was nominated for secretary of the treasury and for an associate justiceship on the Supreme Court, the Senate rejected both appointments. However, over strong Whig opposition, he was confirmed as chief justice of the United States in 1836 (Early life).

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The Bank of the United States struggle

Taney was born in Calvert County, Maryland, and educated at Dickinson College. In 1799 he was admitted to the Maryland bar, and in the same year he was elected to the Maryland legislature as a member of the Federalist Party. When the War of 1812 caused a division among the Federalists, Taney led the faction that supported the war. After 1824 he aligned himself with the Democratic Party. He served as attorney general of Maryland from 1827 to 1831, and President Andrew Jackson appointed him attorney general of the U.S. in July 1831. In 1832 Taney helped to write the speech given by Jackson to announce his veto of a congressional act renewing the charter of the Bank of the United States because it centralized too much power on a federal level.

After Jackson's reelection in 1832, Taney was given a recess appointment as secretary of the treasury to implement the distribution of the funds of the Bank of the United States among various state banks. Because of congressional opposition to his financial policy, the Senate refused to confirm his appointment as secretary of the treasury in 1834 and as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1835. Taney was confirmed as chief justice in 1836, despite Whig Party opposition. Under Taney's leadership of the Court, federal judicial power over corporations was expanded, inland waters were placed under the control of the nation, and the federal government was held to exercise exclusive power over foreign relations (Chief Justice).

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When General Wilkinson, then Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army, was tried before a court martial, convened at Frederick in 1811, on charges of being an accomplice of Aaron Burr, Taney was one of the counsels in his defense, and, together with John Hanson Thomas, succeeded in winning his acquittal. Both refused any fee for their service because they had shared the suspicion against the accused. Taney was defeated on the Federal ticket for member of the House of Representatives of the United States, but in 1816 was elected to the state Senate. At the March term, 1819, of the Frederick County Court, he successfully defended Jacob Gruber, a Methodist minister, who was indicted for inciting slaves to the disturbance of the peace of the state.

In 1823, he moved to Baltimore, and was soon recognized as the leading lawyer of that city, being appointed in 1827 by Governor Kent as Attorney-General of Maryland, upon the unanimous recommendation of the Baltimore bar. President Andrew Jackson, a warm admirer of Taney, appointed him Attorney-General of the United States on 21 June, 1831, and, upon the refusal of William J. Duane, Secretary of the Treasury, to remove the government deposits from the United States Bank, the president removed Duane from office on 23 Sept., 1833, and, on the same day appointed Taney in his stead. The latter assumed the duties of the secretary-ship on the following day, and two days later gave the order for the removal of the deposits to take effect on the first of October following. His appointment to the office of Secretary of the Treasury having been made during a recess of Congress, his nomination was sent to the Senate by the president on 23 June 1834, and was rejected after a heated debate.

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This was the first time in the history of the Government that a cabinet officer appointed by a president had been rejected. Taney immediately submitted his resignation to President Jackson, and the latter accepted it with much regret. Judge Gabriel Duvall of Maryland, an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, resigned in 1835, and President Jackson nominated Taney in his stead, but the nomination was not brought up in the Senate until the end of the session, and was then indefinitely postponed, which amounted to a rejection. This was due to the fact that the Senate as then constituted was violently opposed on political grounds to the president. In the same year Jackson again named Taney for a place on the Supreme Bench, this time as Chief Justice Marshall's successor. The nomination was strongly opposed by Senators Webster and Clay, but was finally confirmed on 15 March 1836, by a majority of fourteen votes.

The Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge.

Charles River Bridge Case, decided in 1837 by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Charles River Bridge Company had been granted (1785) a charter by the state of Massachusetts to operate a toll bridge. The state later authorized (1828) a competing bridge that would eventually be free to the public. The Charles River Bridge Company brought suit against the competing company, claiming that the state charter had given it a monopoly. The court upheld the state's authorization to the other company, holding that since the original charter did not specifically grant a monopoly, the ambiguity in the contract would operate in favor of the public, thus allowing a competing bridge.

The holding modified the Dartmouth College Case, which held that a state could not unilaterally amend a charter.

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Chief Justice Taney modifies Marshall's position on the sanctity of contract. Taney here introduces the public social responsibility of private companies, observing, "While the rights of private property are sacredly guarded, we must not forget that the community also has rights, and that the happiness and well-being of every community depends on their faithful preservation."  At issue was whether the corporate charter of a bridge company gave it exclusive rights by implication.  The Court ruled that no corporate charter could confer implied powers beyond the specific terms of the grant.  Conservatives, including Justice Story, held that this was an attack on the rights of property, but this decision led to healthier business enterprise because it blocked monopolistic claims by older companies.  (Charles, 1837)

The Dartmouth College case

Dartmouth College Case, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1819. The legislature of New Hampshire, in 1816, without the consent of the college trustees, amended the charter of 1769 to make Dartmouth College public (Gerard & Kranz). The trustees brought suit. Daniel Webster argued successfully that the amendment violated the Constitution because the state had impaired “the obligation of a contract.” The opinion of the court, delivered by Chief Justice John Marshall, was that a charter was in effect inviolable.

The decision made the contract clause of the Constitution a powerful instrument for the judicial protection of property rights against state abridgment. In 1837, Chief Justice Taney, while not challenging the basic principle, ruled in the Charles River Bridge case that a legislative charter must be construed narrowly and a corporation could claim no implied rights beyond the specific terms of a grant.  (Dartmouth College case)

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The Ableman vs. Booth case

Here Chief Justice Taney defines the proper relationship between state and federal judicial process.  Booth was convicted of violating the Fugitive Slave Law (1850) but was freed by the anti-slavery Wisconsin Supreme Court by a writ of habeas corpus.  U.S. Marshall Ableman appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court questioning whether the state court had supremacy over the federal court and federal laws.  Taney reversed the state judgment, but the state court ignored the U.S. Supreme Court, in effect nullifying the fugitive law.  The South moved closer to succession.

Facts: Booth was held in the custody of Ableman, a United States marshal, pending his trial in a district court of the United States on the charge of having aided the escape of a fugitive slave from the custody of a deputy marshal in Milwaukee. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin issued a writ of habeas corpus.

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Issue: Can a state court grant a writ of habeas corpus to a prisoner arrested under he authority of the United States and in Federal custody?

Decision: No.

Reason: No state judge or court, after being judicially informed that the party is imprisoned under the authority of the United States, has the right to interfere with him, or to require him to be brought before them. And if the authority of the state, in the form of judicial process or otherwise, should attempt to control the marshal or other authorized officer or agent of the United States in any respect, in the custody of his prisoner, it would be his duty to resist it, and to call to his aid any force that might be necessary to maintain the authority of federal law against illegal interference. No judicial process, whatever form it may assume, can have any lawful authority outside the limits of the jurisdiction of the court or judge by whom it is issued; and an attempt to enforce it beyond these boundaries is nothing less than lawless violence.  (Ableman, 1859)

The Dred Scott Case

Taney, Roger Brooke (1777-1864), American jurist and 5th chief justice of the United States, well known for his controversial decision in the Dred Scott case.

Dred Scott Case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1856–57. It involved the then bitterly contested issue of the status of slavery in the federal territories. In 1834, Dred Scott, a black slave, personal servant to Dr. John Emerson, a U.S. army surgeon, was taken by his master from Missouri, a slave state, to Illinois, a free state, and thence to Fort Snelling (now in Minnesota) in Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was prohibited by the Missouri Compromise. There he married before returning with Dr. Emerson to Missouri in 1838.

After Emerson's death, Scott sued (1846) Emerson's widow for freedom for himself and his family (he had two children) on the ground that residence in a free state and then in a free territory had ended his bondage. He won his suit before a lower court in St. Louis, but the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the decision (thus reversing its own precedents). Scott's lawyers then maneuvered the case into the federal courts. Since J. F. A. Sanford, Mrs. Emerson's brother, was the legal administrator of her property and a resident of New York, the federal court accepted jurisdiction for the case on the basis of diversity of state citizenship. After a federal district court decided against Scott, the case came on appeal to the Supreme Court.

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In Feb., 1857, the court decided in conference to avoid completely the question of the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise and to rule against Scott on the ground that under Missouri law as now interpreted by the supreme court of that state he remained a slave despite his previous residence in free territory. However, when it became known that two antislavery justices, John McLean and Benjamin R. Curtis, planned to write dissenting opinions vigorously upholding the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise (which had, in fact, been voided by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854), the court's Southern members, constituting the majority, decided to consider the whole question of federal power over slavery in the territories.

They decided in the case of Scott v. Sandford (the name was misspelled in the formal reports) that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the territories, and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the court's opinion that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. Three of the justices also held that a black “whose ancestors were . . . sold as slaves” was not entitled to the rights of a federal citizen and therefore had no standing in court. The court's verdict further inflamed the sectional controversy between North and South and was roundly denounced by the growing antislavery group in the North (Scott v. Sandford, 1857).

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In 1857 Taney delivered a landmark decision in the Dred Scott case that did much to polarize further the North and the South and to antagonize the abolitionists fighting for an end to slavery. Dred Scott was a slave who, when taken by his master to a territory that forbade slavery, tried to seek release from his bondage. The Court asserted that because the Constitution did not recognize blacks as citizens (whether slave or free), they could not bring suit in federal court. In addition, the Dred Scott ruling invalidated the Missouri Compromise of 1820, with the Court holding that slavery could not be prohibited by Congress in any of the U.S. territories. This was only the second time that a statute enacted by the U.S. Congress was overruled by the Supreme Court as being unconstitutional (Scott v. Sandford, 1857).

Luther v. Borden

Rhode Island residents, deprived of voting rights, were clearly disenfranchised by the existing state government. They called an extralegal convention and drafted a new state constitution. Luther was allegedly involved in this "insurrection" against the state.  Borden and others, members of the state militia, forced their way into Luther's house under authority of martial law, and Luther sued for trespass.  At issue was the authority of the Supreme Court to define republicanism.  Chief Justice Taney avoided the issue by diverting responsibility to the legislative and executive branches of government. "The sovereignty in every State resides in the people..." "[it is] a political question to be settled by the political power."

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Facts: In 1841 the people of the state of Rhode Island were still operating under the old colonial charter with a few minor revisions, using it as their state constitution. This constitution strictly limited the right to vote. Led by a man named Dorr, the people at various mass meetings throughout the state instituted a new constitution whereby suffrage was greatly increased. The state government claimed that this was an insurrection and appealed to the President to declare martial law. However, no federal forces were used.  Members of the state militia led by Borden forced their way into the house of Luther, a Dorr adherent, who sued for trespass. Luther moved to Massachusetts in order to legalize a suit on the basis of diversity of citizenship.

Issue: Can the Court decide as to the guaranty of a republican form of a state's government in accordance with Article IV, Section 4?

Decision: No. (vote 8-1)

Reason: This is a purely political question and must be left in the hands of the political branches of the government to decide. Their decision moreover may not be questioned in a judicial tribunal. It would constitute a usurpation of power for the Supreme Court to attempt to decide the question. The enforcement of the guarantee of a republican form of government rests with the President or Congress.

.... if the people, in the distribution of powers under the constitution, should ever think of making judges supreme arbiters in political controversies, when not selected by nor, frequently, amenable to them, nor at liberty to follow such various considerations in their judgments as belong to mere political questions, they will dethrone themselves and lose one of their own invaluable birthrights; building up in      this way--slowly, but surely--a new sovereign power in the republic, in most respects irresponsible and unchangeable for life, and one more dangerous, in theory at least, than the worst elective oligarchy in the worst of times.--Justice Levi Woodbury, dissenting.  (Luther v. Borden, 1849)

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Kentucky v. Dennison

Facts: Kentucky had indicted Willis Lago for aiding in the escape of a Negro slave. Dennison, the governor of Ohio, refused to give up Lago, who was a fugitive, for he considered the offense as not being one of "treason, felony or other crime," in accordance with Article IV, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution.

Issue: Has a governor any discretion in the rendition of a prisoner in accordance with Article IV, Section 2, and Clause 2 of the Constitution?

Decision: Yes. (No evidence from the report that the decision was not unanimous.)

Reason: The Constitution says that if a fugitive from justice is found in another state, upon the demand of the executive authority of the state from which the fugitive fled, he is to be delivered up and returned to the state from which he fled. In 1793 an act of Congress made it the duty of the e executive authority of one state to deliver upon demand the fugitive to the state from which he fled. The key words are "it shall be the duty" in that Act of Congress, and the Court felt that they were not used as mandatory and compulsory but as declaratory of the moral duty, which the constitution created.

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This Act did not provide any means to compel the executive to do his duty, nor inflict any punishment for neglect or refusal on the part of the executive of the state; nor is there any clause or provision in the Constitution that arms the government of the United States with this power. If the federal government possessed the power to burden a state officer with a task and then, if it were not carried out, punish him "it might overload the officer with duties which would fill up all his time, and disable him from performing his obligations to the state, and might impose on him duties of a character incompatible with the rank and dignity to which he was elevated by the state." If the governor of Ohio refuses to discharge his moral duty, there is no power for the federal government to use any coercive means to compel him to do so. The words of the Constitution and of the Act of Congress are mandatory in form but discretionary in fact.  (Kentucky v. Dennison, 1861)

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A Summary and Analysis

The most famous case decided by the Supreme Court during Chief Justice Taney's incumbency was that of Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sanford, the opinion in which, delivered by Taney, has been much misquoted and misunderstood. Chief Justice Taney did much towards the building up of the system of practice in the Supreme Court, framing it after that of the English courts, yet so modified as to be adaptable to the changed conditions existing in the United States.

His opinions were arrived at rather by deep reflection and application of established legal principles to the questions presented to him than through exhaustive research of authorities. While giving due respect to former decisions, he did not rely slavishly upon precedents. By his dignified, though kindly, bearing, he always commanded the utmost respect for his Court. He had few, if any, personal enemies, and even his political opponents never questioned the purity of his private life. Early in life he manumitted the slaves inherited from his father, and as long as they lived, he provided for the older ones by monthly pensions. He was buried at Frederick by the side of his mother's grave in accordance with his own request. There is a handsome statue of him in Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore.

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How Taney's career affected US legal history

Early in 1799 he was admitted to the bar. Returning to his father's home in Calvert County to practice his profession, he shortly afterwards was elected to the House of Delegates, being then scarcely twenty-three years of age and the youngest member of the Assembly. In March 1801, he went to Frederick to establish himself better in his legal practice, having been defeated for re-election to the Legislature from Calvert County. He was a candidate for member of the House of Delegates from Frederick County in 1803 on the Federal ticket, but, the county being strongly Republican, he was again defeated.

Taney's judicial opinions reversed a pattern of interpretation established by his predecessor, John Marshall. Rather than emphasizing supremacy of the federal government, Taney upheld state sovereignty, especially in relation to the threatened domination of the South by northern culture and interests. The 1857 [Dred] Scott v. Sanford case, in which the Supreme Court determined that a slave under Missouri law had no constitutional right to bring suit in federal court for his freedom, most clearly demonstrated this view. Taney served as chief justice for 28 years, the second longest tenure next to that of John Marshall.

An 1874 resolution authorized the Joint Committee on the Library "to procure and place in the room of the Supreme Court of the United States busts of the late Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney and the late Salmon Portland Chase." Two years later, the committee authorized its chairman "to contract with some competent artist for a bust of the late Chief Justice Taney, the head of the same to be modeled after that of the Chief Justice [by William H. Rinehart] at Annapolis." Noted American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens was engaged for the task. His copy was completed in 1877 and placed in the Court's chamber later that year. 

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Works Cited

Ableman v. Booth.  (1859).  21 Howard 506; 16 L. Ed. 169.  Nov. 20, 2001 <http://lawbooksusa.com/cconlaw/ablemanvbooth.htm>

Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge.  (1837).  11 Peter, 420.  Nov. 20, 2001 <http://lawbooksusa.com/cconlaw/charlesriverbridgevwarrenbridge.htm>

Chief justice. Encyclopedia. Learningnetwork. Infoplease.com.  Nov. 20, 2001 <http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/people/A0861433.html>
Dartmouth College Case. Encyclopedia. Learningnetwork. Infoplease.com.  Nov. 20, 2001 <http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/history/A0814693.html>

Early life. Encyclopedia. Learningnetwork. Infoplease.com.  Nov. 20, 2001 <http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/people/A0861432.html>

Gerard, G. W.  & Kranz, M. W.  Letter, Thomas Jefferson to William Plumer regarding the Dartmouth College case, 21 July 1816.  (Thomas Jefferson Papers).  Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years.  Nov. 20, 2001
< http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mcc:@field([email protected](mcc/078)>

Kentucky v. Dennison.  (1861).  24 Howard 66; 16 L. Ed.  717.  Nov. 20, 2001, <http://lawbooksusa.com/cconlaw/kentuckyvdennison.htm>
Luther v. Borden.  (1849).  7 Howard 1, 48 U.S. 1.  Nov. 20, 2001 <http://lawbooksusa.com/cconlaw/luthervborden.htm>
Mcneal, J. P. W.  (1999). Roger Brooke Taney.  The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV.  Transcribed by Douglas J. Potter.  Nov. 20, 2001 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14442c.htm>

Scott v. Sandford.  (1857).  19 Howard 393, 60 U.S. 393.  Nov. 20, 2001 <http://lawbooksusa.com/cconlaw/scottvsanford.htm>

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