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The Supreme Court

White Court, 1910 to 1921

After President William Taft won the presidential election in 1908, he decided he wanted to fix the problems at the Supreme Court. His biographer, Henry Pringle, noted in his book, The Life and Times of William Howard Taft, that Taft wrote this about the court: “The condition of the Supreme Court is pitiable and yet those old fools hold on with a tenacity that is most discouraging.” Taft was a respected jurist, who served as a circuit judge and understood the importance of judicial appointments. Teddy Roosevelt hand-picked Taft, who was Secretary of War, as his successor.

Taft decided to promote Edward White, who served as an associate justice since 1894, to the position of chief justice. White served on the southern side during the Civil War and was seen as an ex-confederate. White brought civility back to the court and worked to build consensus when case discussions were held in conference. His court was run sharply different than the Fuller Court, whose activism frequently resulted in closely divided decisions like the Lochner decision just discussed.

Standard Oil v. U.S.

Just the Facts

John D. Rockefeller's oil monopoly was exposed by investigative journalist Ida Tarbell, whose work is considered one of the best pieces of investigative journalism ever seen in this country. She wrote a series of stories in McClure's magazine that were later published in a book, The History of Standard Oil, which is no longer in print, but you can read parts of it at www.history.rochester.edu/fuels/tarbell/MAIN.HTM.

The Standard Oil v. U.S. case is the most famous of the cases decided by the White Court. By the time this case made it to the Court, Standard Oil controlled over 90 percent of the oil market and related businesses. The case was brought by Teddy Roosevelt's Justice Department in 1906, but it wasn't until 1909 that a Missouri court ruled in favor of the United States and ordered the breakup of Standard Oil. The case didn't make it to the Supreme Court until 1910 and was decided on May 15, 1911.

The case was brought against the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey and 33 other corporations, John D. Rockefeller, William Rockefeller, Henry Flagler, and four other defendants, who were in charge of the company. The Supreme Court had more than 12,000 pages of testimony to review regarding business transactions over a 40-year period.

Just the Facts

Standard Oil is the only major corporation that was broken up based on a Supreme Court ruling. Monopoly issues that including rulings on boxing, aluminum, and many other businesses have made it to the court over the years. If you are interested in researching other monopoly and anti-trust cases, here is a good place to start: www.ripon.edu/faculty/bowenj/antitrust/caselist.htm.

The Supreme Court's final 8 to 1 decision ordered the breakup of Standard Oil Company of New Jersey and its related 36 domestic companies and one foreign company within six months. The court found that Standard's misdeeds included the following:

  • Rebates, preferences, and other discriminatory practices that favored certain railroad companies;
  • Restraint and monopolization by control of pipe lines, and unfair practices against competing pipe lines;
  • Contracts with competitors in restraint of trade;
  • Unfair methods of competition, such as local price cutting at the points where necessary to suppress competition;
  • Espionage of the business of competitors, the operation of bogus independent companies, and payment of rebates on oil;
  • The division of the United States into districts, and limiting the operations of the various subsidiary corporations to such districts limiting price competition; and
  • Enormous and unreasonable profits earned by the Standard Oil Trust and the Standard Oil Company as a result of the alleged monopoly.

The case was one of many that was brought to the courts after the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. This act made restraint of trade illegal and monopolizing trade a felony.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.


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