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Supreme Court Justices

Roger Brooke Taney (1777 - 1864)

Roger Brooke Taney (pronounced Taw-nee) was born in Calvert County, Maryland on March 17, 1777. His family consisted of tobacco planters who favored adoption of the Constitution. Because he was the second son in his family, he would not receive the plantation upon his parents' deaths, and so was trained in law. Taney successfully practiced law in Frederick, Maryland, and entered politics in his 20s. He married Anne Key, the niece of Francis Scott Key, in 1806. Until 1821, when Taney left the Maryland Senate, Taney was a Federalist. He then joined the Democratic Party, led by Andrew Jackson. Between 1826-31, Taney was the attorney general for the state of Maryland. He then was appointed Attorney General for the United States, a position he kept for two years. Taney was then given a recess appointment as Secretary of the Treasury, and aided Jackson in removing funds from the Second Bank of the United States, causing it to collapse, as Jackson intended. When the Senate reconvened, it refused to confirm Taney's nomination, and Taney returned to the practice of law in Maryland. After the death of Gabriel Duvall, Jackson nominated Taney to replace him. The Senate rejected the nomination. When John Marshall died in July 1835, Jackson nominated Taney to replace Marshall, and Philip Barbour to replace Duvall. The Senate confirmed both nominations on March 15, 1836 (after the Court's 1836 Term had ended), but no records exist of the debate or vote.

Taney's first great decision was in Charles River Bridge Co. v. Warren Bridge Co. (1837). The case had languished in the Supreme Court for nearly all of the decade. The conflict in the Charles River Bridge litigation was between the contract clause, which protected individual interests against state interference, and the public policy interest in competition. The Charles River Bridge had been given something of a monopoly by the state, which was threatened by the building of the Warren Bridge nearby. Taney, for the Court, held that the vested rights of the individuals did not extend so far as to grant them implicit monopolies. Therefore, the state had not violated the contract clause in chartering a corporation that built a competitor to the Charles River Bridge. Taney in general was less nationalistic that Marshall or Joseph Story. He favored a dual sovereignty that permitted the states to regulate the economy as long as doing so did not infringe on federal powers.

Taney is best remembered for his decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), decided only days after the inauguration of President James Buchanan. For only the second time in American history, an act of Congress was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Taney first concluded that the Court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case because Dred Scott was not a citizen of the United States. In dicta, Taney continued, Scott remained a slave. Scott's owner had taken Scott to the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Minnesota, and under the doctrine of "once free, always free," once a slave was voluntarily taken by his owner to free territory, that slave became a free person. Taney rejected this doctrine, and concluded that when Congress declared slavery impermissible north of a line of 36 degrees, 30 minutes latitude (Missouri excepted), it acted beyond its constitutional power. Thus, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional. Instead of settling the issue of slavery, Dred Scott merely caused slavery to take precedence over all other political issues. One of the two dissenters, Benjamin Curtis, was so angered by the opinion of the majority that he resigned from the Court.

Taney lived for another seven years, and died at 87. He was Chief Justice for 28 years, and the combined service of Marshall and Taney had taken the Supreme Court through the first two-thirds of the 19th century. Taney was the first Roman Catholic to be named a Justice of the Supreme Court. The painting of Taney shown above is from late in his life, after Dred Scott was decided.

Further reading: James F. Simon, Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President's War Powers (2006).