A bronze statue of Roger Brooke Taney, the Supreme Court chief justice who wrote the Dred Scott decision, has sat outside the Maryland State House since 1872, its eyes gazing down in judgment at visitors.
But General Assembly Democrats say it’s now judgment day for Taney, declaring it’s time for the Maryland native whose 1857 ruling upheld slavery to be expunged from the state’s pantheon.
“Justice Roger Taney represents a period of time and an ideology that black people are not human beings, not fully human,” said Delegate Jill P. Carter, the Baltimore Democrat who introduced a bill to pull down the statue and have it destroyed.
It’s the latest effort to rid Maryland’s public spaces of memorials dedicated to those who played a role in defending slavery or enforcing discrimination against blacks. It also comes amid a national debate over public displays of Confederate symbols, which are viewed by some as historic markers of heritage but by others as offensive relics of racism.
A Taney statue already has come down in Baltimore, and the University of Maryland last year renamed its football stadium, stripping the name of late college president Harry Clifton “Curley” Byrd, who died in 1970. Students who led that push said Byrd’s contributions to making the school a research powerhouse did not overcome his anti-integration beliefs.
Colin Byrd, a senior at the university who joined the anti-Taney fight Wednesday at the State House, urged lawmakers to keep pushing for an accounting of the state’s troubled past.
“This body should not be willing to dismiss the concerns of minorities just to appease some Confederacy-Roger Taney sympathizers,” said Mr. Byrd, who is black and is not related to the late education leader.
But some lawmakers wondered where the push would end.
“I despise Roger Taney,” said Delegate Herbert H. McMillan, Anne Arundel Republican. “But if we went around doing this, we’re going to be very busy replacing statues.”
Delegate Christian Miele, Baltimore County Republican, wondered whether the country’s founders are next.
“Are the contributions of George Washington so significant that it outweighs the really abhorrent thing in that he owned slaves?” Mr. Miele said.
Taney is Maryland’s only Supreme Court chief justice. Born in Calvert County, he enjoyed a long political career before his ascension to the bench in 1837, having served as a delegate, state senator and state attorney general.
He wrote the majority opinion in the Dred Scott ruling, saying the court didn’t consider slaves to be American citizens — a decision widely considered to be a low point in Supreme Court history and a major factor in spurring the Civil War.
“I don’t understand how the institution could argue for keeping Taney,” said Ms. Carter, an African-American lawmaker. “Members of the body are saying, ‘It personally offends me,’ and black and white legislators are saying this symbol of racism is personally offensive.”
Her bill calls for destroying the Taney statue; but after an outcry from preservationists, she said she would amend her legislation to ship the statue to the state archives instead.
Legislative analysts estimate it would cost about $77,500 to excavate and transport the 83,000-pound statue, and about $5,000 a year to store it.
The bill is one of several this session to limit symbols celebrating slavery or the Confederacy on state property, including one to ban images of Confederate flags on license plates and another to replace the state song with a less offensive version. (The state song “Maryland, My Maryland” refers to Abraham Lincoln as a “despot” and Union troops as “Northern scum.”)
The legislation forms part of the national discussion on racism and the legacy of slavery, segregation and Confederate symbols that has heated up across the country — spawned in part by last summer’s church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine black church members were gunned down allegedly by a white shooter who had posed for photos with the Confederate battle flag before the massacre.
South Carolina pulled down a Confederate flag from its statehouse grounds, and President Obama directed the National Park Service to stop selling memorabilia with Confederate emblems. In Congress lawmakers debated whether to stop displaying state flags that pay homage to Confederate banners, and legislation almost passed that would have restricted the flying of Confederate flags at national cemeteries.
Maryland, which was a slave-holding state that stayed loyal to the Union during the Civil War, has seen some of the most intense debate.
A commission assembled by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to address Confederate relics in the city voted in January to take down a Taney statue in Mount Vernon Place and a monument to Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in Wyman Park.
In Frederick the Board of Aldermen unanimously decided in October to move a Taney bust from City Hall. In Easton the Talbot County Council is weathering criticism over its decision to keep a monument to Confederate soldiers on the county courthouse lawn.
Measures to remove Taney’s statue from the capitol grounds have been introduced before. In 1996 lawmakers and advocates struck a deal to erect a statue of Thurgood Marshall, a Maryland native and the first African-American Supreme Court justice, in front of the main entrance to the State House.
The two statues on either side of the State House represent how “history has changed, been interpreted, and progressed,” according to the Maryland State Archives.
Ms. Carter’s bill and a companion in the Senate sponsored by Sen. C. Anthony Muse, Prince George’s Democrat, have strong support among the legislature’s Democrats.
But Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has dismissed such measures as “political correctness run amok.”
“As Gov. Hogan has already made clear, he has no interest in removing historical landmarks from state property,” said Shareese Churchill, a spokeswoman for the governor.
Mr. Byrd, the university student, suggested a compromise: removing Taney and substituting a statue of Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass, both black abolitionists.
“That will preserve history,” he said. “Those are very legitimate options to kill both birds with one stone.”