Taney, Roger Brooke: Chief Justice

Chief Justice

The Senate, incensed by Taney's actions as Secretary of the Treasury, refused in 1835 to ratify his nomination as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, but the following year, somewhat changed in membership, the Senate ratified his appointment as chief justice. In the Charles River Bridge Case (1837) Taney declared that a state charter of a private business conferred only privileges expressly granted and that any ambiguity must be decided in favor of the state. His opinion outraged conservatives, who were opposed to any modification of the view that charters issued by states are inviolable, a view established by Taney's predecessor, John Marshall, in the Dartmouth College Case (1819).

Taney felt that the police power of a state entitled it to make reasonable regulatory laws even if they appeared to override provisions of the U.S. Constitution; thus, he held that, although Congress alone had the power to regulate interstate commerce, a state might exclude a corporation organized elsewhere. In sustaining fugitive slave laws, however, Taney denied to free states the power of refusing obedience to federal statutes requiring the surrender of escaped slaves.

Taney's support of the slavery laws was most clearly expressed in the Dred Scott Case (1857). Here he held that slaves (and even the free descendants of slaves) were not citizens and might not sue in the federal courts, and that Congress could not forbid slavery in the territories of the United States. Opposition to the second holding was furiously expressed by the Republicans, and when Lincoln became President he considered Taney an arch foe. In the Civil War, Taney in vain ruled against Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus (see Merryman, ex parte). There was much antipathy to Taney at his death, but there has been a gradual increase in appreciation of his contributions to constitutional law.

Sections in this article:

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Supreme Court: Biographies