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In 1910 the Chief Justice's chair on the Supreme Court of the United States became vacant once again. The man who probably wanted the job more than anyone else in the whole world had the double misfortune of having another job that he couldn't easily get out of, as well as the responsibility to pick the person who would get his dream job. President William Howard Taft would eventually get the job of Chief Justice of the Court. But in the meantime he had to pick a replacement for the late Chief Justice Melville Fuller.



The man Taft chose was Edward Douglass White Jr. of Louisiana. White had served on the Court as an Associate Justice since 1894, since he was appointed by Grover Cleveland. He was a former senator and a Civil War veteran, though he had fought for the other side. The appointment surprised many people, since Taft was a Republican and White was a Democrat. But they were both conservatives

White was born in 1845 near the town of Thibodauxville (now Thibodaux), Louisiana in Lafourche Parish. His father was Edward Douglass White Sr., a former governor of Louisiana. He was also related on his mother's side to the Lee family of Virginia. The White family owned a large plantation in Louisiana that cultivated and processed sugar cane, and in the time before the war it relied heavily on slave labor. Like Roger Taney, White was a devout Roman Catholic. He studied at the Jesuit College in New Orleans, and later at Mount St. Mary's College near Emmitsburg, Maryland. He attended Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., but his studies were interrupted by the Civil War. He enlisted in the Confederate Army and served under General Richard Taylor (the son of Zachary Taylor) and eventually attained the rank of lieutenant. Some historians believe that White may have embellished the record of his military service. However according to records he was captured on March 12, 1865, imprisoned in New Orleans and paroled the following month in April 1865. White was one of three ex-Confederate soldiers to serve on the Supreme Court.

White was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the aftermath of the Civil War. After the war, while living on his family's abandoned plantation, White enrolled at the University of Louisiana in New Orleans to complete his study of the law, at what is now known as the Tulane University Law School. He was admitted to the Louisiana State bar and commenced practice in New Orleans in 1868. He also pursued a political career and served in the Louisiana State Senate in 1874, at a time marked by interracial violence in political campaigns and elections.

White was appointed as an Associate Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, serving from 1879 to 1880. He had close connections with Governor Francis T. Nicholls, a former Confederate general who served as Governor from 1877 to 1880, and later from 1888 to 1892. The state legislature appointed White to the United States Senate in 1891 to succeed James B. Eustis. He served until his resignation on March 12, 1894, when he was nominated by President Grover Cleveland to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.As an associate justice in 1896, White was among the the six justices whose majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson approved segregation.

In 1910, he was elevated by President William Howard Taft to the position of Chief Justice of the United States upon the death of Melville Fuller. His appointment was controversial for a number of reasons. White was a Democrat while Taft was a Republican. The media expected Taft to name Republican Justice Charles Evans Hughes to the post. There has been speculation that Taft appointed White, who was 65 years old and in poor health in the hope that White would not serve all that long and that Taft himself might be appointed to succeed him. If those were Taft's motives, they were spot on. Following White's death in 1921, Taft was indeed appointed as his successor, making White the only Chief Justice to be followed in office by the president who appointed him.

White was generally seen as very conservative. Among his more notable decisions as Chief Justice, he wrote the 1916 decision upholding the constitutionality of the Adamson Act, which mandated a maximum eight-hour work day for railroad employees. He was Chief Justice at a time when the Court had a caseload of more than 8,000 cases for consideration for appellate review. There were only a few clerks to work for all the members of the Court, and the Chief Justice held weekly meetings with fellow jurists, assigned all the cases. White himself wrote the majority opinions in 711 cases, as well as 155 dissenting opinions. The main subject of his dissents was his opposition to income taxes.

Although a southerner, White wrote for a unanimous Court in Guinn v. United States (1915), a case which struck down the Oklahoma and Maryland "grandfather clauses", those provisions of state constitutions that set qualifications for voters and which were efforts to disenfranchise African-American voters. In the decision, White found grandfather clause exemptions to literacy tests to be unconstitutional. The Oklahoma Constitution had allowed an exemption to the literacy requirement for those voters whose grandfathers had either been eligible to vote before January 1, 1866 or were then a resident of "some foreign nation", or were soldiers. It was an exemption that favored white voters but disfranchised African-American voters, most of whose grandfathers had been slaves and therefore unable to vote before 1866. The decision also affected similar provisions in the constitutions of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia. While the grandfather clause was ruled unconstitutional, state legislatures worked to develop other means of restricting voter registration. It took years for cases challenging those laws to reach the Supreme Court.



In 1918, in a series of cases known as the Selective Draft Law Cases, White upheld the Selective Service Act of 1917, and more generally, upheld conscription in the United States.

As Chief Justice, White swore in presidents Woodrow Wilson (twice) and Warren G. Harding. White died in office on May 19, 1921. He is buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

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