William Howard Taft On Judicial IndependencePosted: April 13, 2018
I’ve been a great fan of President Theodore Roosevelt since I was a child. I may have to revisit my admiration for Teddy, however, after reading law prof Jeff Rosen’s fascinating post about Teddy’s “demagogic attacks” on judicial independence–and how his successor, William Howard Taft, responded to them. Rosen writes:
Judicial independence was the cause to which Taft was most devoted, as President and Chief Justice. Taft fought the election of 1912 as a crusade against Theodore Roosevelt’s demagogic attacks on judicial independence. In February, 1912, Roosevelt alarmed Taft by attacking individual judges by name and endorsing the right of the people to overturn state court decisions as well as recalling state court judges.
Taft responded that “the charter of democracy” Roosevelt proposed “advocated a change in our judicial system” that “would be dangerous to the body politic.” The recall of judges and their decisions, he said, “would necessarily destroy the keystone of our liberties by taking away judicial independence, and by exposing to the chance of one popular vote, questions of the continuance of our constitutional guarantees of life, liberty and property and the pursuit of happiness.” After delivering this fervent address, Taft retreated to his private railway car and expressed anguish to a journalist, “Roosevelt was my closest friend,” he declared, with his head in his hands. And then he began to weep.
Judicial independence is under attack once again. How President, later Chief Justice, Taft responded to Roosevelt’s attacks on judicial independence is a lesson for how we should respond to similar attacks today.