Who Are the Worst Supreme Court Justices of All Time?
How does one define failure as a jurist? Is it an inability to perform one's work without letting personal biases interfere? How about intellectual limitations or poor writing ability? Does an invisible career count?
There are plenty of lists of "worst U.S. Supreme Court decisions" out there, but what about the minds behind those terrible decisions? Here are our suggestions for the worst of all time, with one small caveat: We're leaving current justices off the list, because of possible partisan bias, the recency effect, and the notion that a person's legacy isn't cemented until it's history.
James Clark McReynolds: Anti-Semitic Loner
Ask Supreme Court scholars about their least favorite justice, and it's almost certain that McReynolds will make the list. According to Wikipedia, McReynolds would not accept "Jews, drinkers, blacks, women, smokers, married or engaged individuals as law clerks." When Justice Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court justice was appointed, McReynolds refused to speak to him for three years. He'd treat Justice Benjamin Cardozo and Justice Felix Frankfurter with a similar disdain.
When McReynolds died in a hospital in 1946, some reports say that he had no friends or relatives nearby, and no Supreme Court justices attended his funeral.
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney: Dred Scott
Check any list of worst decisions and you'll find Dred Scott v. Sandford at the top of the list. It's author? Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.
Taney's opinion seemed to be driven by a motivation to end the question of slavery once and for all -- by ruling in favor of the shameful practice. In the opinion, he took an originalist approach to the question of whether Dred Scott became a free man once his "owners" brought him into a free state. The most quoted passage from the incredibly lengthy opinion? When discussing the founders' view of "that unfortunate race," Taney noted:
They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.
His opinion also invalidated the Missouri Compromise, even though the Court admitted that it had no jurisdiction to hear the case, since Scott was not a citizen.
Alfred Moore: Who?
There are many anonymous names in the list of Supreme Court justices, especially in the early days when it wasn't the supreme institution that it is now. But Moore stands out among those names because of his length of service and absolutely embarrassing lack of productivity.
Five years. One short four-paragraph opinion. Speaking of short, Wikipedia notes that at 4 feet 5 inches, Moore was the shortest justice ever, which is the only notable thing about his tenure.
Samuel Chase: Impeached Politician
Here's a bar trivia fact for all you law students: Justice Samuel Chase was the only Supreme Court justice to ever be impeached.
Was he corrupt? Did he get freaky with a clerk? Nope. According to the late Professor Bernard Schwartz's "A Book of Legal Lists," he was a shamelessly partisan judge, who let his Federalist leanings openly influence his judicial decisions and conduct on the bench. He'd bemoan President Thomas Jefferson's policies from the bench, and when he presided over trials brought under the Sedition Act of 1798, it was said that his "performance as a judge was almost indistinguishable from that of the prosecution."
The Court was also unable to mount a quorum in 1800 because of Chase's electioneering in favor of President Adams' failed bid for re-election.
Chase's partisan activities eventually led to his impeachment, though the Senate, mindful of the importance of an independent judiciary, voted to acquit.
We're sure we missed someone, such as any of the anonymous early justices, or Charles E. Whittaker, whom Schwartz called "the dumbest Justice ever appointed." Tweet your nomination to @FindLawLP.
- 5 Justices With the Shortest Supreme Court Tenures (FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court Blog)
- The Justice Stevens 'Retirement' Tour Makes a Stop in Congress (FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court Blog)
- Is Sotomayor 'Finding Her Voice' or Alienating Her Colleagues? (FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court Blog)
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