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.