Taney, Roger Brooke (1777–1864)

Author:William M. Wiecek

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Roger B. Taney, CHIEF JUSTICE of the United States from 1836 until his death in 1864, profoundly shaped American constitutional development in cases dealing with states' regulatory powers, CORPORATIONS, SLAVERY, and the JURISDICTION of federal courts. His reputation long suffered from invidious and inappropriate comparisons with his predecessor Chief Justice JOHN MARSHALL and because of his disastrous opinion in DRED SCOTT V. SANDFORD (1857). But his influence has been enduring and, on balance, beneficial.

Taney was born in 1777 in Calvert County, Maryland. His father, a well-to-do planter, destined him for a career in law. After graduation from Dickinson College (Pennsylvania), he was admitted to the bar in 1799 and began a thirty-six-year career of politics and law practice in Maryland. He served intermittently in both houses of the state legislature until 1821, at first as a Federalist. But finding that affiliation intolerable because of the conduct of New England Federalists during the War of 1812, he assumed leadership of a local faction known as Coodies and then after 1825 supported ANDREW JACKSON. Practicing first in Frederick, where he maintained his lifelong residence, and then in Baltimore, he became a preeminent member of the Maryland bar, state attorney general from 1827 to 1831, and then attorney general of the United States, a position he held until 1833, when he served for a year as secretary of the treasury.

Taney urged President Jackson to veto the bill to re-charter the Bank of the United States and contributed that part of JACKSON ' SVETO OF THE BANK BILL in which the President denied that the Supreme Court's opinion on constitutional matters bound the President. As treasury secretary, Taney ordered removal of the federal deposits from the Bank and their distribution to certain "pet banks." In these bank matters, Taney was not the mere pliant tool of Jackson; rather, he acted in accord with his own deep suspicions of centralized and monopolistic economic power.

As attorney general, Taney also had occasion to explore issues involving slavery and free blacks. Upholding South Carolina's Negro Seamen's Act, which prohibited black seamen from disembarking from their vessels while in Carolina waters, Taney insisted that the state's sovereign right to control slaves and free blacks overrode any inconsistent exercise of federal treaty and commerce powers. Presaging his Dred Scott opinion, he maintained that blacks were "a separate and degraded people," incapable of being citizens. He also expressed doubt that a Supreme Court decision holding the statute unconstitutional would bind the states.

As Chief Justice of the United States after 1836, Taney left an enduring imprint on the American Constitution. Most of the landmark cases coming before the Court in the first decade of his tenure involved questions of the power of the states to regulate the economic behavior of persons or corporations within their jurisdictions. In CHARLES RIVER BRIDGE V. WARREN BRIDGE (1837) Taney employed a paradigmatic balance between investors' demands for autonomy and the states' insistence on public control of that new legal creature, the private corporation. Refusing to read into a bridge company's charter an implicit grant of a transportation monopoly, Taney held that "in charters, ? no rights are taken from the public, or given to the corporation, beyond those which the words of the charter, by their natural and proper construction, purport to convey." (See RESERVED POLICE POWERS.)

Subsequent decisions of the Taney Court confirmed the Charles River Bridge DOCTRINE : where the state had explicitly conveyed monopoly rights or otherwise conferred valuable privileges, a majority of the Court honored the grant and held the state to it under CONTRACT CLAUSE doctrines

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deriving from FLETCHER V. PECK (1810). On the other hand, the Court refused to infer monopoly grants or other restrictions on state regulatory power if they were not explicitly conferred in a corporate charter. Thus in BANK OF AUGUSTA V. EARLE (1839) Taney held that states could regulate the activities of foreign corporations within their jurisdictions, or exclude them altogether, but that such regulations would have to be explicit. Absent express declarations of state policy, the TANEY COURT refused to hold that banking corporations could not enter into contracts outside the state that chartered them.

Yet Taney entertained an instinctive sympathy for states' efforts to control economic activity within their jurisdictions. In another case from his maiden term, BRISCOE V. BANK OF KENTUCKY (1837), Taney supported the majority's holding that a state was not precluded from creating a bank wholly owned by it and exercising note-issuing powers, so long as the state did not pledge its credit to back the notes. Such notes would have been a subterfuge form of the state BILLS OF CREDIT that had been struck down in CRAIG V. MISSOURI (1830). In BRONSON V. KINZIE (1843), however, Taney invalidated state statutes that restricted foreclosure sales and granted mortgagors rights to redeem foreclosed property. Even here, however, he emphasized that states could modify contractual remedies so long as they did not tamper with the substance of existing contracts.

Taney's opinions dealing with the jurisdiction of federal courts proved...

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