The Worst Supreme Court Justice

Another bit of odd history for your reading enjoyment

Recently I learned that the worst Supreme Court Justice in American history was not Roger Taney, or anyone else who voted for the Dred Scott Decision.  It was a native of my current home state of Kentucky, James Clark McReynolds (1862-1946), also known as “The Rudest Man in Washington.”  If you haven’t heard of him, it is because he is not known for any landmark court decisions, nor are there any colleges named after him, the way Brandeis University is named after another justice from Kentucky.  His time on the Court saw women and minorities start to gain more rights, such as the right of women to vote, and McReynolds made his mark by fighting tooth and nail to stop that progress.

He showed excellent promise during the first half of his life.  At Vanderbilt University, McReynolds graduated as valedictorian of his class in 1882, after which he went to law school at the University of Virginia.  He finished up the nineteenth century by practicing law in Nashville, and then served as an Assistant Attorney General under Theodore Roosevelt, from 1903 to 1907.  After that, he had a legal practice in New York, and was involved in enforcing antitrust laws, until Woodrow Wilson became president.  Because of his past experience, and because Wilson was also a Southerner (don’t be fooled by his time at Princeton, Wilson was born in Virginia and raised in Georgia), Wilson saw McReynolds as the logical choice to become the next Attorney General.

McReynolds only stayed in Wilson’s Cabinet for one year, because by this time he was insensitive, obstructive, and a thoroughly unpleasant person.  Wilson could not get along with him, but did not want to offend any Southerners by firing McReynolds, so instead he kicked him upstairs, nominating him to the Supreme Court when a position on it became available.  He was confirmed by the Senate and sworn in on the very same day.  That solved Wilson’s problem, but now the High Court had to deal with McReynolds for the next twenty-seven years (1914-41).

William Howard Taft, the Court’s chief justice in the 1920s, felt McReynolds was competent in his judicial duties, but described him as selfish, prejudiced, “and someone who seems to delight in making others uncomfortable … He has a continual grouch, and is always offended because the court is doing something that he regards as undignified.”  Taft also wrote that McReynolds was the most irresponsible member of the Court, and that “in the absence of McReynolds everything went smoothly.”

McReynolds was especially difficult to get along with when blacks, Jews or women were around, because he hated all of them.  For example, when President Wilson appointed Louis Brandeis in 1916, McReynolds was so offended by the Court’s first Jewish justice, that he refused to speak to him for three years.

At least once every year, the Court members sit together for a group photograph, with the chief justice in the middle.  In 1924, the decision was made to place Brandeis beside McReynolds, so to avoid sitting next to a Jew, McReynolds boycotted the photography session, and Chief Justice Taft canceled the photograph for that year.  Then when Benjamin Cardozo joined the Court, McReynolds was deliberately boorish; he pleaded with President Hoover not to “afflict the court with another Jew,” read a newspaper during the swearing in ceremony, and never spoke to Cardozo at all.  For the swearing in ceremony of Felix Frankfurter, McReynolds did not attend, but simply declared, “My God, another Jew on the Court!”  Brandeis retired in the same year that Frankfurter came in (1939), and bitter to the end, McReynolds refused to sign the customary letter of thanks, which Supreme Court justices give to outgoing members.

McReynolds did not think that women could work in any position of authority, and never got married; you can probably guess why.  When it came to hiring law clerks and staff members, he wanted individuals who had no interest in anything but serving him.  His policy was to automatically reject applications submitted by “Jews, drinkers, blacks, women, smokers, married or engaged individuals.”  The only exception was made for an African-American named Harry Parker, whom he hired as his personal messenger.

During the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, McReynolds and three other justices opposed the New Deal so strongly that they came to be known as the “Four Horsemen.”  Among the innovations they voted to strike down were the National Recovery Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Social Security Act.  Because they were so annoying, FDR could not wait for them to get out of the way, and tried to pack the Court with friendlier justices before the old ones stepped down.  Fortunately, Congress kept Roosevelt from doing that until nature took its course; all of the “Nine Old Men” died or retired between 1937 and 1941.  In the case of McReynolds, he retired in January 1941, right at the beginning of Roosevelt’s third term.

The end of McReynolds’ life showed that what goes around comes around.  There were no friends or relatives with him in the hospital when he died in 1946, and not one Supreme Court Justice attended the funeral.  Compare that with the treatment his messenger, Harry Parker, got when he died of old age in 1953; the Chief Justice and four or five other Justices came to his funeral.


5 real judges who put most evil supervillains to shame

Two Kentuckians and Supreme Court Legacies

2 responses to “The Worst Supreme Court Justice

  1. Pingback: Does Woodrow Wilson Belong At Princeton? by Richard A. Epstein | RUTHFULLY YOURS

  2. You took true Christian satisfaction in his lonely death, and that none of his fellow Justices attended his funeral. Of course you left out the facts that he was known for his generosity to his clerks, was a convivial host for many parties, and loved children, leaving his entire estate to charity for their benefit.

    But he didn’t grovel before Gawd’s Self-Chosen – so he got what he deserved!

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