Huey Long and Chief Justice Taft

I’m starting to work on my next book, which will be about the New Deal.  A leading character in that story will be Huey Long, and I thought I’d throw out one nugget about him that I haven’t posted before.

Long was 29 when he argued (and won) his only case before the Supreme Court in 1922.  Years later, a quote surfaced from Chief Justice William Howard Taft stating that Long had one of the best legal minds to ever appear before the Court.  Naturally, I was curious about the source of this impressive statement.  Turns out that it’s a fabrication. There is nothing in Taft’s papers to confirm the quote, and nobody who uses it cites a primary source. Robert Post, the Dean at Yale who is writing the Holmes Devise about the Taft Court, once told me that the only mention of Long in the Justices’ papers came because he sent them (inappropriate) gifts after the decision.

Where did this quote come from then?  It looks like it started appearing in newspapers in the early 1930s while Long’s political career was on the rise and after Taft was, conveniently, dead.  My suspicion is the Long or one of his supporters simply made up the quote and fed it to a journalist.  Can I prove this?  Probably not, but we’ll see.

This gives me an excuse to tell one of the best Long stories (true or not). When asked in his oral bar exam how he would handle an admiralty case given that he knew nothing about admiralty law, Long allegedly replied “First I’d call the judge and then we’d split the fee.”  He passed.

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2 Responses

  1. Joe says:

    Prof. Michael Dorf on his blog noted he himself might be the source of a “too good not to be true” story about an exclusionary rule case where Burger asked a lawyer about a situation of excluding the evidence of a dead body found and Rehnquist then asks “what about two dead bodies.”

    He heard the story from a clerk but could not find a citation in transcripts.

  2. Tom pattersob says:

    I think the quote was found in a vanity fair magazine article that did not cite a source, and it’s absence from the Justice’s papers would not establish that it never happened.

    The story about the bar exam is a little off, too, if you believe the version set forth in t. Harry williams’ biography of Long.