Interdependence classics: Justin Crowe, The Forging of Judicial Autonomy: Political Entrepreneurship and the Reforms of William Howard Taft

I have recently become fascinated with the work of William Howard Taft, a man who approached the Presidency like a judge and the Chief Justiceship like an executive. Taft was an extraordinary judicial reformer, not because of his judicial opinions (although he authored hundreds during his time on the Court) but because of the “executive principle” he brought to managing the federal court system. In just nine years as Chief Justice, Taft personally lobbied for and secured legislation increasing the number of federal judges, dramatically reducing the Supreme Court’s mandatory caseload, and authorizing the courts to developing internal administration through what would become the Judicial Conference of the United States. Taft also set the groundwork for the Rules Enabling Act (allowing the federal courts to develop their own uniform procedural and evidentiary rules).

Professor Justin Crowe’s article, The Forging of Judicial Autonomy, vividly and concisely describes how Taft turned a highly dependent, decentralized federal court system into a modern organization in less than a decade. Crowe focuses his article around two major pieces of legislation: a 1922 Act which added 24 new federal judges and created the Judicial Conference’s predecessor, the Conference of Senior Circuit Judges; and the Judiciary Act of 1925, which eliminated most of the Supreme Court’s obligatory caseload. These Acts were not, Crowe argues, inevitable — or even desired — by Congress. Rather, they were the result of a “judicial autonomy” forged by Taft, who combined relentless entrepreneurship with existing social networks and willingness to embrace modern management theories.

Crowe notes early in the article that standard political theories do not adequately explain the judicial reform of the 1920s. The “Congress-centered perspective” assumes “substantial and independent congressional interest in judicial reform,” but there is little evidence of such interest during the period. The “Court-centered perspective,” by contrast, assumes that the court increased its own relative power through a landmark decision (e.g., Marbury v. Madison). But no such decision was responsible for the key organizational reforms identified here. Rather, Crowe argues, the fundamental organizational change for the federal courts was due to Taft’s own entrepreneurship — a strategy that “entailed not only lobbying but also quite a bit more — not least framing debate, guiding innovation, and consolidating immediate gains into lasting institutional change.”

Taft had much work to do, on many fronts. Internally, he had to centralize the federal courts, which were at once geographically dispersed and functionally disparate.  He did this by creating (through legislation and internal administration) a formal hierarchy with central management. Here the Conference of Senior Circuit Justices was critical: the creation of that organization at once allowed Taft to increase regular communication between the scattered courts, and exercise greater bureaucratic control over the assignment of judges within circuits and the tracking of judicial workloads. Externally, Taft had to assure Congress and court watchers that the federal judiciary was not seeking to take undue power either from Congress or the states.

As Crowe describes, Taft ultimately accomplished his goals by drawing “on three key elements of entrepreneurship: the building of organizational reputations, the cultivation of multiple networks, and the pursuit of change through measured action.” Each of these elements required outstanding political skill — perhaps more skill that Taft had demonstrated while President. He cleaved his personal reputation to that of the court system when advocating for changes before Congress and with outside groups. He utilized existing networks from his political career, and forged new networks with the press and bar association to aid in promoting his reforms. He even dispatched his fellow Supreme Court Justices to tap into their networks for similar purposes. Taft also took a measured approach to reform, patiently laying the groundwork for legislation to pass, and always couching the requested reforms as a response to real problems in the administration of justice.

The story of Chief Justice Taft’s reforms richly illustrates the scope of court interdependence.  Reliant on Congress for resources and the public for legitimacy, the federal courts had to reform and strengthen themselves as an organization with a combination of networking, patience, and entrepreneurship. Navigating that path in the 1920s required a Chief Justice with a unique skill set and unique political experience.  In William Howard Taft, the federal courts got their man.

Crowe’s article was a predecessor to his 2012 book Building the Judiciary: Law, Courts, and the Politics of Institutional Development.  The book more completely traces the history of the federal judiciary from the Founding through modern times, and is strongly recommended as well.  A good review of the book by Professor Kevin Walsh can be found here. 

Full citation: Justin Crowe, The Forging of Judicial Autonomy: Political Entrepreneurship and the Reforms of William Howard Taft, 69 J. Politics 73 (2007).

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