There has been so much piffle and argle-bargle, as Justice Scalia would have called it, over the President’s decision to pay his respects as the justice lay in repose at the Supreme Court and not attend his funeral mass, that I decided to take an hour and see what has really gone on.
The lead on nearly all the stories in the media, real and social, has been that President Bush 2 not only attended but spoke at the funeral of Chief Justice Rehnquist, who died in office in 2005, and that the last justice to die in office before that was Robert Jackson in 1954.
Seven of the seventeen chief justices have died in office: Rehnquist; Fred Vinson in 1953; Harlan Stone in 1946; Edward White in 1921; Melville Fuller in 1910; Salmon Chase in 1873, Roger Taney in 1864; and John Marshall in 1835. Of those funerals, the President in office attended all but that of Marshall, who died in Richmond, Virginia. President Jackson getting word and getting there, would have taken some considerable time.
The others died in Washington, which made it easier, and from a protocol standpoint, appropriate. The Chief Justice is, like the President head of a branch of government under the terms of the Constitution. Their offices are created by it.
Associate justices are another matter. Thirteen have died in office since 1881, which was as far back as anyone needs to care to score debating points, and then some.
When Justice Jackson died in 1954, President Eisenhower sent a wreath. He did not attend the funeral. Nor did President Truman attend the funerals of Justices Murphy and Rutledge in 1949, though the Secretary of Labor attended Murphy’s for the President. The President did not attend the funerals of Justice Butler (1939); Justice Lurton (1914); Justice Peckham (1909); Justice Gray (1902); Justice Jackson (1895); or Justices Blatchford or Lamar (1893). Blatchford’s death was problematic because he and President Cleveland were both vacationing near each other. The President, however, had had secret surgery on a yacht to remove a cancerous tumor from his jaw, a procedure that was described as routine dental surgery to the public. He managed to finesse his way out of attending.
Vice President Morton attended Justice Bradley's funeral in 1892. Neither President nor Vice President was at the funeral of Justice Woods (1887) or Justice Clifford (1881).
Accounts of the justices funeral indicate the Chief Justice and two or three others attended most of the funerals, which were mostly held in the justices’ hometowns far from DC.
And that’s that.