WASHINGTON — Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren’s name is on the U.S. Navy’s newest fuel ship. Justice Elena Kagan smashed a champagne bottle against its hull in a shipyard ceremony in San Diego on Jan 21.
Two other justices soon will join Warren, who in 1954 wrote the Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in public schools, in a group of ships being named for civil rights leaders. The Navy has awarded contracts for the construction of the Thurgood Marshall and the Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The first ship in this group is named for John Lewis, the longtime congressman and civil rights icon.
It may be unsurprising that Warren, who died in 1974, is not the first justice with a naval vessel bearing his name. But the four earlier justices who have been similarly honored are not among the better-known of the 116 men and women who have served on the Supreme Court.
Instead, the Navy has seen fit to name ships for James Iredell, Alfred Moore, Smith Thompson and Levi Woodbury.
Woodbury was on the court for nearly six years until his death in 1851 and earlier was secretary of the Navy. He was the first to be recognized, and several vessels were named for him, including a destroyer that ran aground off the California coast in 1923 in what has been called the Navy’s largest peacetime disaster.
Twenty-three men died, and the Woodbury was among seven destroyers lost in the Honda Point disaster.
Another vessel named for Woodbury was one of four World War II Liberty ships bearing the justices’ names. More than 2,700 Liberty ships, which carried cargo and troops, were built quickly and cheaply during the war.
Like Woodbury, Thompson also had served as the Navy secretary before joining the court. He died in office in 1843 after serving 20 years. Iredell was among the first justices, named by President George Washington.
Moore took Iredell’s seat but produced only one recorded opinion in his four years as a justice and resigned in poor health. “Moore’s career made scarcely a ripple in American judicial history,” according to “The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States.”
Kagan, incidentally, is not the first of the current justices to have christened a ship. Justice Sonia Sotomayor did the honors for the USNS Puerto Rico in 2018.
Taft’s pitch to be chief
A letter written by one of Warren’s predecessors offers some interesting tidbits about lobbying for a court appointment and choosing when to step down.
William Howard Taft is the only person who was both the nation’s president and, later, chief justice.
He had a long and well-known interest in joining the court. But when President-elect Warren Harding sounded Taft out about becoming a justice, Taft wrote that he would only accept being chief justice, according to a letter found by Walter Stahr in Harding’s papers. Stahr is working on a biography of Taft and wrote about the letter for the Supreme Court Historical Society.
At 63, Taft explained he didn’t expect to serve more than 10 years. What’s more, he wrote, he appointed three justices who remained on the court and publicly opposed the confirmation of another, Louis Brandeis.
Taft wrote that he “would feel ill at ease to come into the Court after having been President as the junior of my own appointees and of the man I tried to defeat.”
He also strongly suggested that then-Chief Justice Edward White had been determined not to retire while Woodrow Wilson was president.
Though initially appointed by Democratic President Grover Cleveland, White “in the years past has said to me that he was holding on for me and to return the place to a Republican administration,” Taft wrote.
White died in May 1921, less than three months after Harding took office. By early summer, Taft had the job he wanted.