James Clark McReynolds, U.S. Attorney General, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

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James Clark McReynolds

Birthdate: (84)
Death: August 24, 1946 (84)
Immediate Family:

Son of John Oliver McReynolds and Ellen McReynolds

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Immediate Family

About James Clark McReynolds, U.S. Attorney General, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court


James Clark McReynolds (February 3, 1862 – August 24, 1946) was an American lawyer and judge who served both as United States Attorney General under President Woodrow Wilson and as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He served on the Court from October 12, 1914 to his retirement on January 31, 1941, and was known for his conservative opinions opposing much of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal legislation.

Early life

Born in Elkton, Kentucky, the son of Dr. John Oliver and Ellen (née Reeves) McReynolds. His parents were both members of the fundamentalist Campbellite sect of the Disciples of Christ Church. He graduated from the prestigious Green River Academy and later matriculated at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, graduating with status as a valedictorian in 1882 and graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1884. He was secretary to Senator Howell Edmunds Jackson, who later became an associate justice himself. McReynolds practiced law in Nashville and served as Professor of Commercial Law, Insurance, & Corporations at Vanderbilt University Law School, and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1896 as a "Goldbug" Democrat. Under Theodore Roosevelt he was Assistant Attorney General from 1903 to 1907, when he resigned to take up private practice in New York City.

Attorney General and Supreme Court tenure

While in private practice, he was retained by the Government in matters relating to enforcement of antitrust laws, particularly in proceedings against the "Tobacco trust" (see United States v. American Tobacco, 221 U.S. 106 (1911)) and the combination of the anthracite coal railroads.

On March 15, 1913, McReynolds was appointed the 48th United States Attorney General by President Wilson, where he remained until August 29, 1914. He earned a reputation as a liberal 'trust buster'. On August 19, 1914, Wilson appointed him to the Supreme Court, to a seat vacated by Horace H. Lurton. McReynolds was confirmed by the United States Senate and received his commission the same day, starting with the new term on October 12, 1914. When rendering opinions, he was known for conciseness and brevity. His fierce opposition in the face of Franklin Roosevelt's legislation to fight the Great Depression led to his being labeled one of the "Four Horsemen", along with George Sutherland, Willis Van Devanter and Pierce Butler. McReynolds voted to strike down: the Tennessee Valley Authority; the National Industrial Recovery Act; and the Social Security Act 42 U.S.C.A. § 301 et seq. in Steward Machine Co. v. Davis, 301 U.S. 548, 57 S. Ct. 883, 81 L. Ed. 1279 (1937). He continued to vote against New Deal measures after the Court's 1937 "switch" to upholding New Deal legislation. Professor Howard Ball called McReynolds "the most strident Court critic of Roosevelt's New Deal programs". When the Supreme Court Building opened in 1935, McReynolds, like most of the other Justices, refused to move his office from his apartment into the new building but continued to work out of the office he maintained at his apartment.

Retirement and death

After a substantial hearing loss, he assumed senior status on January 31, 1941, effectively resigning from the court. He lived at the Rochambeau apartment complex in Washington, D.C. until his death on August 24, 1946, aged 84.

Important opinions

Justice McReynolds wrote two early decisions using the Fourteenth Amendment to protect civil liberties: Meyer v. Nebraska 262 U.S. 390 (1923), and Pierce v. Society of Sisters 268 U.S. 510 (1925). Meyer involved a state law that prohibited the teaching of modern foreign languages in public schools. Meyer, who taught German in a Lutheran school, was convicted under this law. McReynolds wrote that the liberty guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment included an individual's right "to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, to establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his conscience, and generally to enjoy privileges, essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men".

Pierce involved a challenge to a law forbidding parents to send their children to any but public schools. Justice McReynolds wrote the opinion for a unanimous Court, holding that the Act violated the liberty of parents to direct the education of their children. McReynolds wrote that "the fundamental liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only". These decisions were revived long after McReynolds departed from the bench, to buttress the Court's announcement of a constitutional right to privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut 381 U.S. 479 (1965), and later the constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

McReynolds authored the controversial decision in United States v. Miller 307 U.S. 174 (1939), which was the only Supreme Court case that directly involved the Second Amendment until District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008.

In the field of tax law, McReynolds wrote for the Court in Burnet v. Logan, 283 U.S. 404 (1931), a significant decision setting out the Court's doctrine regarding "open transactions".

McReynolds also wrote the dissent in the Gold Clause Cases, which required the surrender of all gold coins, gold bullion, and gold certificates to the government by May 1, 1933 under Executive Order 6102, issued by President Franklin Roosevelt.

Personality and conflicts

McReynolds was labeled "Scrooge" by journalist Drew Pearson. Chief Justice William Howard Taft thought him selfish, prejudiced, "and someone who seems to delight in making others uncomfortable ... [H]e 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 "[i]n the absence of McReynolds everything went smoothly."

Taft wrote that although he considered McReynolds an "able man", he found him to be "selfish to the last degree... fuller of prejudice than any man I have ever known ... one who delights in making others uncomfortable. He has no sense of duty ... really seems to have less of a loyal spirit to the Court than anybody". Addicted to vacations, in 1929, McReynolds asked Taft to announce opinions assigned to him (McReynolds), explaining that "an imperious voice has called me out of town. I don't think my sudden illness will prove fatal, but strange things some time [sic] happen around Thanksgiving". Duck hunting season had opened and McReynolds was off to Maryland for some shooting. In 1925, he left so suddenly on a similar errand that he had no opportunity to notify the Chief Justice of his departure. Taft was infuriated as two important decisions he wanted to deliver were held up because McReynolds had not handed in a dissent before leaving.

McReynolds would not accept "Jews, drinkers, blacks, women, smokers, married or engaged individuals as law clerks". A blatant anti-Semite, "Time [magazine] called him 'Puritanical', 'intolerably rude', 'savagely sarcastic', 'incredibly reactionary', and 'anti-Semitic'". McReynolds refused to speak to Louis Brandeis, the first Jew on the Court, for three years following Brandeis's appointment and, when Brandeis retired in 1939, did not sign the customary dedicatory letter sent to justices on their retirement. He habitually left the conference room whenever Brandeis spoke. When Benjamin Cardozo's appointment was being pressed on President Herbert C. Hoover, McReynolds joined with fellow justices Butler and Van Devanter in urging the White House not to "afflict the Court with another Jew". When news of Cardozo's appointment was announced, McReynolds is claimed to have said "Huh, it seems that the only way you can get on the Supreme Court these days is to be either the son of a criminal or a Jew, or both." During Cardozo's swearing-in ceremony, McReynolds pointedly read a newspaper,and would often hold a brief or record in front of his face when Cardozo delivered an opinion from the bench. Likewise, he refused to sign opinions authored by Brandeis.

According to John Frush Knox (1907–1997), McReynolds's law clerk from 1936–37, and the author of a memoir of his service, McReynolds never spoke to Cardozo at all. McReynolds even absented himself from the memorial ceremonies held at the Supreme Court in honor of Cardozo. He did not attend Felix Frankfurter's swearing-in, exclaiming "My God, another Jew on the Court!".

In 1922, Taft proposed that members of the Court accompany him to Philadelphia on a ceremonial occasion, but McReynolds refused to go, writing: "As you know, I am not always to be found when there is a Hebrew abroad. Therefore, my 'inability' to attend must not surprise you." McReynolds refused to sit next to Brandeis (where he belonged on the basis of seniority) for the Court photograph in 1924. "The difficulty is with me and me alone," McReynolds wrote Taft. "I have absolutely refused to go through the bore of picture-taking again until there is a change in the Court, and maybe not even then." Taft capitulated, and no photograph was taken that year.

McReynolds odium extended to fellow Justice John Hessin Clarke. McReynolds' behavior towards Clarke has been cited as a reason for the latter's premature resignation from the Court in 1922. McReynolds refused to sign the joint letter sent to Clarke on his resignation. In a letter, Taft commented that "[t]his is a fair sample of McReynolds's personal character and the difficulty of getting along with him." Once, when another colleague, Harlan Fiske Stone, remarked to him of an attorney's brief: "That was the dullest argument I ever heard in my life", McReynolds replied: "The only duller thing I can think of is to hear you read one of your opinions."

McReynolds's rudeness was not confined to colleagues on the Court. Once, when called before the chairman of the Golf Committee at the Chevy Chase club after complaints were filed against him, McReynolds said: "I've been a member of this club a good many years, and no one around here has ever shown me any courtesy, so I don't intend to show any to anyone else." The indignant chairman replied: "Mr Justice, you wouldn't be a member of this club if it wasn't for your official position. The members of this club have put up with your discourtesy for years, merely because you are a member of the Supreme Court. But I'm telling you now that the next time there is a complaint against you, you'll be suspended from the privileges of the golf course." Justices Pierce Butler and Willis Van Devanter transferred from the Chevy Chase club to Burning Tree because McReynolds "got disagreeable even beyond their endurance".

When a woman lawyer appeared in the courtroom, McReynolds would reportedly mutter: "I see the female is here again." He would often leave the bench when a woman lawyer rose to present a case. He thought the wearing of wrist watches by men to be effeminate, and the use of red fingernail polish by women to be vulgar.

He forbade smoking in his presence. He is said to have been responsible for the "No Smoking" signs in the Supreme Court building, which was inaugurated during his tenure. He would announce to any Justice who attempted to smoke in Conference that "tobacco smoke is personally objectionable to me". Any who tried "were stopped at the threshold".

However, he was reportedly "extremely charitable" to the pages who worked at the Court, and had a great love of children. For example, he gave very generous assistance and adopted thirty-three children who were victims of the German bombing of London in 1940, and left a sizable fortune to charity. When Oliver Wendell Holmes's wife died, McReynolds broke down and wept at her funeral. Holmes wrote in 1926: "Poor McReynolds is, I think, a man of feeling and of more secret kindliness than he would get credit for." He would often entertain at his apartment, and even passed cigarettes to his guests on occasion. He often invited people for brunch on Sunday mornings. According to William O. Douglas, "[o]n these informal occasions in his own home he was the essence of hospitality and a very delightful companion". Once, when riding to his office on a street car, a drunk got on board and fell out in the aisle. McReynolds picked him up, helped him back to his seat, and sat beside him until they reached the top of Capitol Hill, leaving him only after giving explicit instructions to the conductor. And when due to absence of more senior justices it fell on him to preside in court, "he was the soul of courtesy, graciously greeting and raptly listening to the arguments by lawyers of both sexes".


McReynolds was buried in the Elkton Cemetery in Elkton, Kentucky. Elkton residents fondly remember Justice McReynolds pointing out both his home and office "with great pride and respect".

One of McReynolds' law clerks wrote "... in 1946 he [McReynolds] died a very lonely death in a hospital – without a single friend or relative at his bedside. He was buried in Kentucky, but no member of the Court attended his funeral though one employee of the Court travelled to Kentucky for the services." In contrast, as the clerk noted, McReynolds's aged African-American messenger, Harry Parker, died in 1953, and his funeral was attended by five or six Justices, including the Chief Justice.


McReynolds' papers are held at many libraries around the country, namely: mainly at the University of Virginia Law School in Charlottesville, Virginia; Harvard University Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Felix Frankfurter papers; John Knox papers (1920–80), available at the University of Virginia and Northwestern University; University of Kentucky at Lexington, Kentucky, William Jennings Price (1851–1952) papers; University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library at Ann Arbor, Michigan, Frank Murphy papers; Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota Pierce Butler papers; Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville, Tennessee, Robert Boyte Crawford Howell papers;University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, Homer Stille Cummings papers

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James Clark McReynolds, U.S. Attorney General, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court's Timeline

February 3, 1862
August 24, 1946
Age 84