On June 30, 1921, President Warren Harding announced that he would nominate former President William Howard Taft to become the new Chief Justice of the United States. To this day, Taft remains as the only person to hold the top position in both the executive and judicial branches.
Taft had a long, distinguished career in public service. The son of former U.S. Attorney General Alphonso Taft, the affable Taft was on a fast track to the Supreme Court at a young age. He graduated second in his class at Yale College and was serving as a judge by the age of 29. And at the age of 32, Taft became the youngest Solicitor General of the United States. Taft followed that role with an eight-year appointment as a federal appeals judge.
By 1900, Taft was considered a top contender for the next Supreme Court opening. President William McKinley offered Taft a position as the civilian and military governor of the Philippines, with an understanding that Taft could return to serve on the Supreme Court, if an opening occurred while McKinley was still in office.
However, with McKinley’s assassination, Taft’s friend Vice President Theodore Roosevelt became President in 1901. Roosevelt also offered Taft a chance to serve on the Supreme Court, which Taft then declined, feeling that he had to complete the job he had been tasked with in the Philippines first. In 1904, Taft did accept Roosevelt’s appointment to become the Secretary of War in his cabinet, and four years later, at Roosevelt’s urging, Taft ran for President as the Republican nominee.
Taft defeated William Jennings Bryan in a hard-fought 1908 campaign to become the 27th President of the United States. His four-year term was marked by a growing feud with his former political friend, Roosevelt, culminating with a disastrous 1912 election with both men losing in a landslide to the Democrat, New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson.
Later, the New York Times noted that Taft had a busy time as President nominating Supreme Court Justices. “He made six appointments in a court of nine. One of these appointments was the elevation of Justice White, a Southern Democrat, to the Chief Justiceship. He appointed also Justices Lurton, Hughes, Lamar, Van Devanter and Pitney. Politics had nothing to do with Mr. Taft’s selections for membership on the Supreme Court bench.”
After losing the 1912 presidential election, Taft returned to the legal world, serving as a law professor at Yale. He also served in chairmanship roles in the Red Cross and the National Labor Relations Board during World War I. Taft also frequently wrote for newspapers.
Taft supported fellow Ohioan Warren Harding in the 1920 presidential election and the in-coming President made Taft another offer to join the Supreme Court. However, Taft said that given the fact that he, as president, had nominated several of the other justices serving on the Court, he would only accept the Chief Justiceship. White had been ill at the time, and he passed away in May 1921. After some debate within the Harding White House, the President nominated Taft as the new Chief Justice on June 30, 1921. Taft was confirmed the following day.
As a Chief Justice, Taft was an active jurist. He wrote one-sixth of the Court’s opinions between 1921 and 1930. A “progressive conservative,” Taft presided over a mostly conservative court until February 1930, when severe illness forced him off the bench.
Taft died a month later at the age of 72. The Times noted that Taft’s Supreme Court appointment was a major milestone, and made up for his comparatively lackluster presidential term.
“His appointment by President Harding as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, an office which by both temperament and training he was better fitted to hold than that of President, came as a realization of a lifelong ambition and was received with every manifestation of popular approval. It was a ‘come-back’ unprecedented in American political annals,” the Times said in its official obituary.