Reading the Cases

For nine years, from 1892 through 1900, William Howard Taft was a senior federal judge, based in Cincinnati, handling both trials and appeals, for the Sixth Circuit, which then as now was composed of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. During this period, Judge Taft drafted and published more than three hundred opinions that were reported in theFederal Reporter. Many of the cases Taft handled were closely covered in the papers. The principal prior biographer of Taft, Henry Pringle, was not much interested in legal issues and mentions in his biography only a very few of Taft’s legal decisions. Pringle, it seems, did not bother to read more than a few of Taft’s cases from this period; this section of his biography includes far more quotes from family letters than from court cases or newspapers.

I have been reading cases and newspapers, for the past few days, and wanted to share a bit of what I have found so far.

First, I have been surprised by the number of patent cases. Taft decided at least a dozen patent cases, involving a wide range of technologies, including the process for making aluminum and McCormick’s famous reaper and a rudimentary lawn sprinkler. I suppose this is not surprising, given that this was an age of technology and innovation, but it required Taft to delve deeply into complex technical issues.

Second, I have been surprised by the number of life insurance cases. In many of these cases, after the husband’s death the life insurance company refused to pay the widow on the life insurance company, raising in many cases rather dubious defenses.

Third, I have been impressed by how closely the public followed some of these court cases. For example, in March 1898, Taft presided over the two-week criminal trial of Thomas Youtsey, a senior officer of a defunct national bank, accused of taking at least $200,000 from the bank. Every day there were reports on the Youtsey case in the Kentucky and Ohio papers. The main defense was insanity; at the outset of the trial his lawyers moved for a continuance on the grounds that his epilepsy would make it difficult for him to participate; at the end of the trial they presented witnesses to show that he was “not himself.” The trial ended with a jury verdict against Youtsey and Taft imposed a six-year prison sentence. On appeal, however, before a court composed of three of Taft’s colleagues on the Sixth Circuit, Taft was reversed: the court held that he should have considered more carefully the initial insanity motion. I cannot tell whether there was a second trial; it seems not.

I have also been impressed by Taft’s scholarship. In many of his opinions, he cites dozens of other cases, often noting and resolving contradictions among the cases. In his most famous opinion, the Addyston Pipe case, in which he found unlawful the price coordination among steel pipe manufacturers, Taft cited not only American but many English precedents. Taft was working without law clerks and without the benefit of electronic systems; perhaps some of the cases he cited and considered were mentioned by the lawyers in their briefs, but others he would have had to find on his own, using books. Taft loved books and libraries, and he founded the library of the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, a library which had thousands of books by the time Taft moved on to his next assignment, as head of the American civilian government in the Philippines.

It is also interesting to see how closely Taft kept in touch with events in Washington, especially in the Supreme Court. His closest friend on the Supreme Court was Justice Harlan, known now principally for his great dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson. Unfortunately many of Taft’s letters from this period are lost: we have, for example, the letters that Harlan sent to Taft but NOT the letters that Taft sent to Harlan. So I have not, yet, been able to find anything that Taft would have agreed with Harlan on the “separate but equal” issue raised and decided in the Plessy case. indeed, so far, I have not found any of Taft’s cases that have much of a “racial angle,” although Kentucky and Tennessee (like other southern states) were in the process of creating the Jim Crow system at this time.


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