Who Was the Only President to Serve on Supreme Court?

William Howard Taft: Reforming the Supreme Court

The only United States president to serve on the Supreme Court was the 27th president William Howard Taft (1857-1930). He served as president for a single term between 1909-1913; and served as Chief Justice on the Supreme Court between 1921 and 1930.

Pre-Court Association with the Law

Taft was a lawyer by profession, graduating second in his class at Yale University, and getting his law degree from the University of Cincinnati Law School.

He was admitted to the bar in 1880 and was a prosecutor in Ohio. In 1887 he was appointed to fill an unexpired term as Judge of the Superior Court of Cincinnati and then was elected to a full five-year term.

In 1889, he was recommended to fill the vacancy in the Supreme Court left by the death of Stanley Matthews, but Harrison selected David J. Brewer instead, naming Taft as Solicitor General of the U.S. in 1890. He was commissioned as a judge to the United States Sixth Circuit Court in 1892 and became Senior Judge there in 1893.

Appointment to the Supreme Court

In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt invited Taft to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, but he was the in the Philippines as the president of the United States Philippine Commission, and he was uninterested in leaving what he considered important work to be "shelved on the bench." Taft aspired to be president one day, and a Supreme Court position is a lifetime commitment.

Taft was elected president of the United States in 1908 and during that time he appointed five members of the Supreme Court and advanced another to Chief Justice.

After his term of office ended, Taft taught law and constitutional history at Yale University, as well as a raft of political positions. In 1921, Taft was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by the 29th president, Warren G.

Harding (1865-1923, term of office 1921-his death in 1923). The Senate confirmed Taft, with only four dissenting votes.

Serving on the Supreme Court

Taft was the 10th Chief Justice, serving in that position until one month before he died in 1930. As Chief Justice, he gave 253 opinions. Chief Justice Earl Warren commented in 1958 that Taft's outstanding contribution to the Supreme Court was the advocacy of judicial reform and court reorganization. At the time Taft was appointed, the Supreme Court was duty-bound to hear and decide a majority of the cases that were sent up by the lower courts. The Judiciary Act of 1925, written by three justices at the request of Taft, meant that the court was finally free to decide which cases it wanted to hear, giving the court the broad discretionary power that it enjoys today.

Taft also lobbied hard for the construction of a separate building for the Supreme Court—during his tenure most of the justices did not have offices at the Capital but had to work from their apartments in Washington DC. Taft did not live to see this significant upgrade of the courtroom facilities, completed in 1935.

Sources:

  • Starr KW. 2005-2006. The Supreme Court and its shrinking docket: The ghost of William Howard Taft. Minnesota Law Review(1363).
  • Warren E. 1958. Chief Justice William Howard Taft. The Yale Law Journal 67(3):353-362.