St. Mary's Law Journal


Political scandal arose from almost the outset of President Warren G. Harding’s administration. The scandal included corruption in the Veterans’ Administration, in the Alien Property Custodian, but most importantly, in the executive branch’s oversight of the Navy’s ability to supply fuel to itself. The scandal reached the Court in three appeals arising from the transfer of naval petroleum management from the Department of the Navy to the Department of the Interior. Two of the appeals arose from President Coolidge’s decision to rescind oil leases to two companies that had funneled monies to the Secretary of the Interior. A third appeal settled the question as to whether Congress had the authority to investigate the executive branch with the power of a subpoena. This appeal arose as a result of a question as to why the Attorney General of the United States failed to investigate corruption and why his younger brother was involved in the corrupt transfer of monies. At the center of the scandal was a clouded question of judicial ethics. Chief Justice William Howard Taft had a role in the slowness of the appeals which arguably served the political purpose of enabling a Republican Party hold on power. Taft had been a conservative Republican and maintained his political leanings throughout his judicial tenure. Equally importantly, however, was a question as to why Taft, who had served as president from 1909 to 1913 and created the oil reserves at the center of the scandal, did not recuse himself from the appeal. That he should have done so, or at least with greater personal transparency, worked the Court to rapidly address questions of legislative authority in a political climate of distrust provides a model for the present Court.

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St. Mary's University School of Law


Brent A. Bauer