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Hoyer Introduces Bill To Remove Bust of Dred Scott Decision Author From Capitol

March 10, 2020 by Dan McCue
Workers add straps to cradle the statue before lifting it from its pedestal. The statue of Roger Taney was removed from the front lawn of the Maryland State House on Thursday night, Aug. 17, 2017. (Matthew Cole/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

WASHINGTON – House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., introduced legislation Monday that would remove a bust of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney from public display in the U.S. Capitol and replace it with a bust of Associate Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Taney, the Maryland-born Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1836-1864, wrote the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford, which declared that African-Americans could not be citizens of the United States and struck down limits on the expansion of slavery.

This past Friday marked the 163rd anniversary of that ruling, which continues to be a mark of shame for the United States. 

Currently, a bust of Taney is displayed prominently alongside those of his four predecessors, Chief Justices John Jay, John Rutledge, Oliver Ellsworth, and John Marshall, in the U.S. Capitol’s Old Supreme Court Chamber, seen by millions of visitors each year. 

The bill’s planned replacement, a bust of Thurgood Marshall, honors the famed civil rights attorney who, in 1967 became the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court.

“A bust of Chief Justice Taney should not be displayed in a place of honor in our nation’s Capital,” Hoyer said on the floor of the House Monday. “In Maryland we made the decision to remove a statue of Taney from the State House grounds, reflecting his shameful contribution to the evil system of slavery and its defense, and we ought to do the same here. 

“We are better than this,” Hoyer said, recalling the words of his late colleague, Rep. Elijah Cummings.

“It is time to make it clear to visitors from across our nation and from abroad that America celebrates champions of inclusion and equality, not proponents of hate and injustice,” the Majority Leader said.

Original cosponsors of Leader Hoyer’s bill are Rep. Karen Bass, of California, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Jim McGovern, of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Rules Committee, Reps. Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes, Anthony G. Brown, Jamie Raskin, and David Trone, all of whom are members of Maryland’s congressional delegation.

The proposed swap comes two 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 the latest monuments linked to slavery, segregation or the Confederacy to be removed from a public square.

Writing for the High Court in March 1857, Chief Justice 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 a 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.”

“The people’s house can never really be for the people, with reminders of a painful history that sought to eliminate our existence,” Rep. Bass said. “We are entering a new era where we are reexamining our history and acknowledging that the physical reminders of white supremacy, cannot continue to be celebrated.”

Rep. McGovern said the Capitol building “ought to celebrate freedom and equality – not those who tried to defend racism and slavery.”

“Removing this bust from the Capitol is the right thing to do,” he said. “Having Roger Taney’s statue here sends the wrong message to the members, staffers, and millions of visitors who walk through these doors every year. It’s time to live up to our values and honor those who opposed injustice – not those who perpetuated it.”

Although Maryland’s congressional delegation was well-represented at Monday’s news conference, Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, was a notable exception.

Harris declined to co-sponsor the legislation.

On Monday, Hoyer said he had spoken to the lawmaker and “Mr. Harris has an interesting view: have both statutes there.”

In a written statement issued after the news conference, Harris said he does 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.”

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, to attract bipartisan support.

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