Historic swap? Bill would replace bust of Dred Scott decision author at Capitol with one of Thurgood Marshall

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Democratic leaders want to remove a bust at the U.S. Capitol of Roger Brooke Taney, the Maryland-born former U.S. Supreme Court chief justice best known for writing the Dred Scott decision holding that black Americans were not citizens.

It would be replaced by one of Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall — also a Marylander — who became the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court in 1967.


The proposed swap comes 2½ years after a statue of Taney was removed from the State House front lawn in Annapolis and the city of Baltimore took down another Taney monument in a Mount Vernon park. At the time, they were only the latest monuments linked to slavery, segregation or the Confederacy to be removed from a public square.

Friday was the 163rd anniversary of the Dred Scott decision. In it, Taney wrote that Scott, a longtime slave suing for his freedom, was not a citizen and that no slave — nor their free descendants — had standing to sue in the federal courts. He based his ruling on an interpretation of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.


A half-dozen House Democrats appeared at news conference Monday afternoon to unveil legislation mandating the U.S. Capitol switch. They variously called the Scott decision “a stain” and “a mark of shame.”

“We are better than this, as our late colleague, Elijah Cummings, would say," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of southern Maryland.

Baltimore-area lawmakers C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes, and Jamie Raskin of Montgomery County were among those who appeared at the event. Hoyer said Maryland’s other Democratic representatives — David Trone and Anthony Brown — are also co-sponsors, but Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, is not.

“I have talked to Mr. Harris. We’ll see,” Hoyer said. “Mr. Harris has an interesting view: have both statues there.”

Harris explained his position in a written statement.

“I do not support denying history by removing Chief Justice Taney’s bust, but instead using its presence as a teaching moment by adding Justice Marshall’s bust, along with a plaque about how flawed the Dred Scott decision was ultimately found to be — the proof being the appointment of Thurgood Marshall," Harris said.

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The Taney bust is mounted on a pedestal in the Capitol’s elegant Old Supreme Court Chamber, where the court met for 50 years beginning in 1810. The legislation would give the Capitol architect’s office 30 days to remove the bust. An agreement would need to be signed within two years to obtain a bust of Marshall.

Hoyer said he expected the legislation, which would require approval of the Republican-led Senate, would attract bipartisan support.


“It’s something that can be teachable for generations to come,” Sarbanes said. “When they hear about the fact that we traded out one statue for another, they’ll have to understand the history that goes behind that.”

Others on board include Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass of California and House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. Both are Democrats.

In 2003, Taney’s former Frederick home closed as a historical society changed its contents to offer a new understanding of Taney and the period in which he lived. It reopened in 2004.

William Rehnquist, then the chief justice, attended the reopening and said Taney was a clear, forceful writer possessing a great legal mind.

“We shouldn’t be too quick to judge people of the past by standards of our own,” said Rehnquist, who died in 2005.