Accomplishments and Records

Supreme-ly Qualified Presidents

For an attorney, arguing a case before the United States Supreme Court is one of the highest honors imaginable. Twenty-six of the 44 men who have served as President of the United States have been attorneys. Eight of them have had the supreme honor of appearing before the highest court in the land.

John Quincy Adams was the first chief executive-to-be to advocate a case before the Supreme Court. In fact, he argued five cases — two of which are remembered for their historical significance. The first was the 1810 case of Fletcher v. Peck, 10 US 87. This marked the first time the high court declared a state legislative act unconstitutional. Three decades later, he was back again. This time he joined the defense of the Amistad captives in United States v The Amistad, 40 US 518 (1841). The case ultimately inspired a Steven Spielberg film adaptation of the saga. Adams was successful in persuading the Supreme Court to order the release of the would-be slaves, ruling that they were free men.

Adams had an opportunity to return to the Supreme Court — this time for a longer stay. President James Madison nominated Adams to be an associate justice of the Court in 1811. Although unanimously confirmed by the Senate, Adams declined the nomination, saying, “I am … too much of a partisan to be a judge.”

As President, Abraham Lincoln‘s fame and accomplishments tower over James K. Polk and James Garfield. As a Supreme Court advocate, the Great Emancipator is at the same level, each having argued one case before SCOTUS. Both men fade into obscurity. Garfield, who held the presidency for the second-shortest time on record (199 days), happens to claim the distinction of arguing a spectacular dozen cases before the Court. Among these cases was the landmark Ex Parte Milligan, 71 US 2 (1866). This was the case that established that military courts cannot try civilians as long as civilian courts are open and in session.

When Grover Cleveland came before the Court in the 1891 case of Peake v New Orleans, 139 US 342 (1891), the event was noteworthy, not because of the subject matter of the case, but because of the participants. Cleveland, the only man to serve two non-consecutive terms as President, had finished his first term two years earlier. He appeared before a court that included Chief Justice Melville Fuller and Justice Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II (yes, that was his full name), both of whom had been appointed to their positions by President Cleveland. Neither man felt the need to recuse himself from hearing the case, and they both voted to support Cleveland’s client. Despite their support, the former — and future — President lost the case by a vote of 5 to 3.

The man who was President at the time Cleveland argued his case shows up on no one’s list of exceptional presidents. Maybe that’s because Benjamin Harrison was really more cut out to be a lawyer than a chief executive. With a whopping 15 cases before the Supreme Court, Harrison takes second place in the ranking of Presidential Supreme Court Advocates. Much of this legal work was done after leaving the White House, and his legal skills were much sought after. He was paid well for his expertise. Having left the $50,000 per year salary of the presidency, he was rolling in the dough with the $150,000 per year he brought in as an attorney.

The man who carried the heaviest caseload before the Court was the heaviest President. William Howard Taft, who was 32 years old when he was appointed as Solicitor General of the United States, argued 18 cases before the High Court. He was successful in 15 of those cases. It is only fitting, therefore, that Taft is recognized as the President most closely identified with the Supreme Court. After leaving the White House, he became the first President to be appointed to the Supreme Court. He served as the 10th Chief Justice of the United States from 1921 to 1930.

The most recent lawyer-president to appear before the Supreme Court was Richard Nixon. His appearance in Time v. Hill, 385 US 374 (1967) only added to an already high-profile case. The case centered around events 15 years earlier when the James Hill family was held hostage for nine hours in their suburban Philadelphia home by three escaped convicts. The Hills were released unharmed and just wanted to be left alone. Life magazine ran a story about a Broadway melodrama purporting to be a reenactment of the incident. The Hills’ sued, claiming their privacy had been invaded, and hired the former Vice President and future President to represent them. Nixon’s appearance before the Court won him praise for his preparation and presentation, but it was not enough to win the case. The Hills and Nixon lost in a 5-4 decision.

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