CiteNow!Download PDF

Mckinley, John

Justice photo

Birth: May 1, 1780, Culpeper County, Virginia.

Education: Read law on his own; admitted to the bar in 1800.

Official Positions: Alabama state representative, sessions of 1820, 1831, and 1836; U.S. senator, 1826–1831 and 1837; U.S. representative, 1833–1835.

Supreme Court Service: Recess appointment as associate justice by President Martin Van Buren, April 22, 1837, for a newly created Supreme Court seat; nominated September 19, 1837; confirmed by the Senate, September 25, 1837, by a voice vote; took judicial oath January 9, 1838; served until July 19, 1852; replaced by John A. Campbell, nominated by President Franklin Pierce.

Death: July 19, 1852, Louisville, Kentucky.

Participation in Key Cases
Opinions Written
Learn more about Supreme Court Justices

Learn More About This Supreme Court Justice

Document Outline
John Mckinley
Noteworthy Opinions

John Mckinley

John McKinley migrated with his parents from Virginia to Kentucky, where he spent his boyhood and young adulthood. In 1800 he was admitted to the bar and practiced law in Frankfort and Louisville until 1818, when he moved to Huntsville, Alabama. Soon after Alabama achieved statehood in 1819, McKinley stood for election as one of the state's new circuit judges. Although he was defeated in that election, within a year he was elected a member of the state legislature. In 1822 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate, but in 1826 he was elected to fill the vacancy in Alabama's other Senate seat caused by the incumbent's death. Failing reelection in 1830, the next year McKinley returned to the state legislature, where his status as a former senator gave him a prominent role. Within a year he was again representing Alabama in Washington, this time as a member of the House of Representatives. At the end of the term, McKinley declined to run again but returned to the Alabama legislature in 1836, and was once again chosen to serve as senator. Before his term began, however, President Martin Van Buren appointed him to the Supreme Court.

McKinley had begun his fifteen years' service in the state and national legislatures as a supporter of Henry Clay, a former Kentucky acquaintance, but by 1826 acknowledged himself an Andrew Jackson man. In another era or another state, McKinley's conversion might have courted suspicion, but political consistency was not the rule in Alabama politics in the 1820s, and McKinley's attitudes toward public lands, internal improvements, and the Bank of the United States all bore the Democratic stamp.

As a justice, McKinley continued to adhere to Democratic principles, but his difficult circuit duties and poor health caused frequent absences from sessions of the Court. McKinley's circuit was the Ninth, which included parts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and all of Arkansas. For the first years of his service, he had a route of 10,000 miles and a docket of nearly two-thirds of the cases pending in all of the federal circuit courts. His circuit opinions were never published, and his limited attendance in Washington resulted in few Supreme Court opinions—eighteen majority, two concurring, and two dissenting.

McKinley missed the initial cases of the judicial “revolution” of 1837 when the era of the Marshall Court ended and that of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney began. Yet McKinley, as a junior member of the Court, soon informed the more senior members of his Democratic position on states' rights with regard to corporations. On circuit in 1838, he decided Bank of Augusta v. Earle, a case involving the right of a bank chartered out-of-state to operate in Alabama. The defendant, refusing to pay a bill of exchange, pointed to the Alabama constitutional provision prohibiting “foreign” banks from doing business in the state. McKinley decided in favor of Earle, citing the state constitution's prohibition and arguing that comity, the respect for the laws of another jurisdiction, did not apply. The bank appealed, and the case was paired with two similar cases.

The Supreme Court heard the cases in January 1839, amid the financial difficulties brought about by the Panic of 1837. The concerns in Bank of Augusta v. Earle also resonated with the political issues raised in 1832 over the recharter of the Bank of the United States. McKinley's circuit court opinion had excited commercial and banking interests throughout the country. Joseph Story wrote to Charles Sumner that McKinley's decision had “frightened half the lawyers and all of the corporations of the country out of their proprieties.” Arrayed before the justices were the cream of the Supreme Court bar to argue on behalf of the banks. In addition, James Kent, former chancellor of New York and a leading legal commentator, contended in an article in the Law Reporter that McKinley's decision had no support in English or international commercial law.

Chief Justice Taney, writing for the majority, reversed McKinley's lower court decision and found for the bank, holding that comity granted “foreign” corporations the right to operate in other states unless specifically forbidden to do so. Because the Alabama constitutional provision had not forbidden out-of-state corporations negotiating bills of exchange, the bank was entitled to collect against Earle. McKinley was the lone dissenter.

Three other cases of the 1840s show McKinley's adherence to state powers. In Groves v. Slaughter (1841), McKinley, in a dissenting opinion reminiscent of Bank of Augusta, said that the Mississippi constitutional prohibition of slaves from other states was self-executing. The majority, however, found that the provision required specific legislation to be effective.

As a dissenter in Lane v. Vick (1845), McKinley found the majority's decision overruling the Mississippi Supreme Court's construction of a will gave too much power to federal courts. According to McKinley, in the absence of a need for national uniformity, state court interpretations should be followed.

In Pollard v. Hagan (1845), McKinley expounded for the Court the compact theory and its relationship to the disputed ownership of submerged land. Here, he found that the national government only held federal lands as the agent of the states and could not exceed its commission as agent. Because territories were to be admitted to the Union on an equal footing with the original states, the national government could not continue to maintain sovereignty over submerged lands.

In the Passenger Cases (1849), McKinley surprisingly found that the statutes of New York and Massachusetts regulating the arrival of alien passengers were unconstitutional. Whether his opinion was predicated on the un-Democratic concept that Congress had exclusive power over interstate commerce, or on the belief that the statutes conflicted with existing federal immigration laws, is unclear. Even the justices themselves failed to reach consensus, as eight wrote separate opinions.

With the exception of the Passenger Cases, McKinley's opinions during his fourteen years on the Court reflect his political stance before his arrival on the bench. He propounded the typical Democratic attitudes of his region, which for most of his tenure were shared by Jacksonians in the White House and Congress. But McKinley's intermittent attendance in Washington left others to influence contemporary legal attitudes. His death occasioned little notice.


McKinley's judicial career has excited little research. The most extensive treatment is Frank Otto Gatell's essay in Friedman and Israel, Justices, vol. 1, 769. Carl Swisher addresses McKinley's limited contributions in the context of the Taney Court in The Taney Period, 1836–1864, volume 5 of the Holmes Devise History of the Supreme Court (1974).

Noteworthy Opinions

Groves v. Slaughter, 40 U.S. 15 (1841)

Lane v. Vick, 44 U.S. 3 (1845)

Pollard v. Hagan, 44 U.S. 212 (1845)

Passenger Cases, 48 U.S. 283 (1849)


Document Citation
Mckinley, John, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 346 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18168-979386
Document URL: