William Howard Taft & the Supreme Court

By Kaleena Fraga

William Howard Taft never wanted to be president. He was driven to the White House on the crest of his wife’s ambitions–she had wanted to be First Lady since childhood. Taft’s enduring goal was to join the Supreme Court.

When Taft became president in 1909, he noted to a friend that “if I were now presiding in the Supreme Court of the United States as Chief Justice, I should feel entirely at home, but with the troubles of selecting a cabinet and the difficulties in respect to the revision of the tariff, I just feel a bit like a fish out of water.”

Taft had harbored this ambition since he became a superior court judge in his late twenties. Several times he got close–President McKinley promised him an appointment if Taft would accept his order to serve as Governor General of the Philippines. And President Roosevelt had similarly (twice) offered an appointment. But Taft found himself consistently answering to other callings outside of the Supreme Court–he felt he could not leave his work in the Philippines and his wife, Nellie, convinced him pursue the presidency instead.

Taft didn’t especially enjoy being president–he once remarked that he hardly remembered his one term in office–and the end of his presidency was clouded by his former friend Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to throw his hat in the ring, effectively denying either of them a chance of reelection. But Taft did leave his mark on American jurisprudence–as president, he had the opportunity to appoint six justices to the Supreme Court.

taft sworn inOn October 3rd, 1921, Taft finally realized his ultimate goal and was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Warren Harding. “This is,” Taft declared, “the greatest day of my life.”

As Chief Justice, Taft would oversee a court that expanded federal power, leaned conservative, and approved of Prohibition.

Many of Taft’s decisions–including a controversial ruling that allowed warrantless wiretaps of telephone conversations to be used against defendants in court–were overturned once he retired from the bench. Antonin Scalia noted that Taft, “had a quite accurate ‘vision of things to come,’ did not like them, and did his best, with consummate skill but ultimate lack of success, to alter the outcome.”

Perhaps Taft’s greatest legacy on the Supreme Court was to increase its power and prestige. Taft convinced Congress to pass the Judges’ Bill of 1925, which gave the Supreme Court more control over the cases in its docket and took away the automatic right of appeal. Taft often pushed for unanimity among his fellow justices, believing that such a statement would increase the court’s authority.

Taft’s wife, Nellie, left a tangible mark on Washington D.C. As First Lady, she set about theSCOTUS beautify the city, and ordered 2,000 cherry trees from Japan as part of this effort. Taft too forever changed the landscape of the capitol. He lobbied Congress to put aside funds for a new Supreme Court building–the one we know today–moving the justices out of the old Senate Chamber and into a building of their own. Taft instructed the architect, Cass Gilbert, to design “a building of dignity and importance suitable for its use as the permanent home of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Of his presidency, Taft once remarked “I don’t remember that I ever was president.” He served nine years on the bench as opposed to four years as president, presiding over 250 decisions. Taft only left the Supreme Court once his health required that he do so.

“A Mistake”: Roosevelt, Reagan, and the American Apology

By Kaleena Fraga

Governments often recognize wrongdoing, but rarely issue an official apology. When U.S. President Barack Obama puts arm around Japanese PM Abe after they laid wreaths in front of cenotaph as the atomic bomb dome is background at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, JapanPresident Barack Obama visited Japan in 2016, he expressed sympathy for the victims of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but stopped short of officially apologizing for the United States’ actions. Japanese leaders similarly visited Pearl Harbor, but did not apologize for the attack that drew the United States into WWII.

Apologies are political tools, and are used sparingly. In its history, the United States has only apologized for five things, including the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Although these camps are largely referred to as “internment camps” the Japanese American community prefers “concentration camps” and, indeed, that’s what Franklin Roosevelt called them at the time.

After Pearl Harbor, public sentiment had turned hostile toward Japanese Americans, most of whom lived on the West Coast. Despite a lack of hard evidence that Japanese Americans were a threat, one West Coast commander insisted that didn’t mean that they couldn’t become a threat. This new hostility grew from an already established animosity toward Japanese Americans, who many white citizens felt were taking their jobs and threatening a cultural shift.

Top politicians in California, the entire military leadership, and nearly Roosevelt’s entire Cabinet insisted that the president must act. Roosevelt accepted the “military necessity” of action, and signed Executive Order 9066, which would forcibly remove all people of Japanese descent (anyone with 1/16 or more Japanese ancestry) from any region that the government designated as a military zone. This included California, the western half of Washington state and Oregon, and the southern part of Arizona. It would effect more than one hundred thousand people, many of them children. During the war 10 people would be accused of spying for Japan–none of whom were Japanese-Americans. According to one story, there was an act of sabotage perpetrated by a Japanese American farmer. When he was told to leave his farm to be relocated, he asked for an extension to farm his strawberries. When this request was denied, he destroyed his field. Strawberries, the government said, were necessary to the war effort, so the farmer was arrested for sabotage.

eleanor roosevelt in AZ
ER visiting a camp in Arizona

There was one person in FDR’s inner circle who fought the decision. Eleanor Roosevelt praised Japanese Americans as patriots, and later visited a concentration camp in Arizona. After the war she wrote that “emotions ran too high, too many people wanted to wreak vengeance on Oriental looking people. There was no time to investigate families or adhere strictly to the American rule that a man was innocent until he is proved guilty.”  Her husband later expressed regret as well, but there’s little evidence that he took Eleanor’s concerns seriously at the time.

Few did. In a Gallup poll in 1942, only 35% of respondents thought that Japanese-Americans should be allowed to return to their homes on the West Coast after the war. The only West Coast newspaper to oppose internment came from the little community of Bainbridge Island, Washington, one of the first touched by Order 9066. The papers’ co-editors, Walt and Mildred Woodward, wrote that they hoped the Order “will not mean the removal of American-Japanese citizens…they have the right of every citizen: to be held innocent and loyal until proven guilty.”

John Tateishi, who was three when his family was relocated, later led the push for a formal apology from the United States government. He spent eight years lobbying for such an apology, noting that such a demand was polarizing even within the Japanese-American community. “We came out of these camps with a sense of shame and guilt, of having been considered betrayers of our country,” Tateishi said.  “There were no complaints, no big rallies or demands for justice because it was not the Japanese way.”

In 1980, Congress established a commission on the camps. It ultimately decided that the Order was a “grave injustice” motivated by “racial prejudice, war hysteria and the failurereagan NYT of political leadership.” Eight years later, Reagan signed a bill to send each surviving internee $20,000 and an apology from the American government. Reagan, who initially opposed the apology as “left-over Carterism” grew to support it. However an attorney working with Japanese American families to overturn wartime evacuation order violations suggested that that “the President would not have signed the bill absent some political imperative,” and that he was courting Japanese-American voters.

A spokesman for the Japanese American Citizens League said that while money ”could not begin to compensate a person for his or her lost freedom, property, livelihood or for the stigma of disloyalty,” it proved the sincerity of the government’s apology.

At the signing of the bill, Reagan himself noted:

“It’s not for us today to pass judgement upon those who may have made mistakes while engaged in that great struggle. Yet we must recognize that the internment of Japanese-Americans was just that: a mistake.

No payment can make up for those lost years. So what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”

Theodore Roosevelt and Valentine’s Day 1884

By Kaleena Fraga

On the day after Valentine’s Day, there’s plenty of presidential material to sort through. There are the longest presidential marriages (George and Barbara Bush are the winners here, with a logged 73 years of marital life), Richard Nixon’s surprisingly poetic love letters to his wife, Pat, and Harry Truman, who says that he first fell for his wife, Bess, when he was six years old.

Among the most poignant, and certainly the most tragic, is the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s Valentine’s Day in 1884. Just twenty-five, he lost both his wife and mother on the same day, to unrelated causes. Both died young–his wife, Alice, was only twenty-two, and had just given birth to their daughter. His mother was forty-nine. Roosevelt marked the day with a simple, wrenching entry in his diary. X The light has gone out of my life.

rooseveltdiary.jpg

It was unmistakably the lowest point of Roosevelt’s life. But, as Doris Kearns Goodwin remarked in her Roosevelt biography Bully Pulpit, Roosevelt believed that “frantic activity was the only way to keep sorrow at bay.”

To anyone who has studied Roosevelt’s life, this philosophy is abundantly clear. For those who haven’t, Goodwin describes Roosevelt as someone who simply couldn’t stand still–ever. Journalist Louis Brownlow wrote how Roosevelt, as president, couldn’t stop even for his midday shave. (Journalists were invited to attend, so that Roosevelt could answer questions or give more detail on his ideas). “The President would wave both arms, jump up, speak excitedly, and then drop again into the chair and grin at the barber, who would begin all over.”

When the French ambassador Jules Jusserand visited Roosevelt, dressed for a formal occasion, he was whisked away to the woods with the exuberant president. Describing the event later, Jusserand recalled that they moved at a “breakneck pace” and that when they reached a river, rather than resting, Roosevelt declared that they had better strip “as to not wet our things in the creek.”

After his tragic Valentine’s Day in 1884, Roosevelt would go on to marry his childhood sweetheart, Edith Carow, and have five more children. Roosevelt’s “frantic activity” would propel him to the vice presidency, and then the presidency. If anything, the story of his tragedy is a reminder that someone can go from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs.