Chief Justice Roberts says he wants to avoid a Taneyesque legacy. He can start by joining with congressional leaders in supporting the removal of monuments to his racist predecessor.
By Dylan Hosmer-Quint
The legacy of former Chief Justice Roger Taney is unequivocally, and unavoidably, one of racial prejudice. Taney wrote the majority opinion in the infamous 1857 case Dred Scott v. Sanford, which held that slaves and former slaves were not citizens and could be considered property under the Fifth Amendment.
As the author of one of the darkest moments in the history of the Supreme Court, Taney is rightly remembered for his complicity with slavery and racism. Nevertheless, both the U.S. Capitol Building (at right) and the Supreme Court continue to display his monument. Now, senators and representatives, led by Sen. Benjamin Cardin and Rep. Steny Hoyer, have introduced bills to replace the bust in the Capitol with one of Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice and a long-time champion of civil rights, who, like Taney, is from Maryland.
Chief Justice Roberts may want to consider joining their effort and removing the bust of Taney located in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court.
This comes as monuments across the country are facing increased public scrutiny. The monument to Taney has long been controversial – when it was proposed in 1865, it drew strong criticism from senators wishing to avoid glorifying the author of the Dred Scott decision, especially in the wake of the abolition of slavery.
Now, as many across the nation are reckoning with the legacy of systemic and systematic racism, it seems preposterous that the Senate and the Supreme Court would continue to celebrate the legacy of Taney.
It is civil rights leaders like Marshall who deserve monuments, not proponents of slavery.
Though the bills have yet to garner much attention, the sponsors might find support from an unlikely source: Chief Justice Roberts. Roberts’ record on racial justice is spotty to say the least, but he has expressed concern over his legacy. “You wonder if you’re going to be John Marshall or you’re going to be Roger Taney,” he once said. “The answer is, of course, you are certainly not going to be John Marshall, but you want to avoid the danger of being Roger Taney.”
In large part, Roberts’ legacy will be viewed through his votes and opinions. But if he wants to avoid being remembered as a Roger Taney, perhaps a good place to start would be removing the monument to Taney from his courthouse and supporting calls to remove the other one across the street.
Racial justice requires the nation to come to terms with its history of racial oppression, segregation and biases. That can’t happen so long as men like Roger Taney are exalted in our nation’s top government institutions.