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Mcreynolds, James Clark

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Birth: February 3, 1862, Elkton, Kentucky.

Education: Vanderbilt University, B.S., 1882; University of Virginia, LL.B., 1884.

Official Positions: Assistant U.S. attorney, 1903–1907; U.S. attorney general, 1913–1914.

Supreme Court Service: Nominated associate justice by President Woodrow Wilson, August 19, 1914, to replace Horace H. Lurton, who had died; confirmed by the Senate, August 29, 1914, by a 44–6 vote; took judicial oath October 12, 1914; retired January 31, 1941; replaced by James F. Byrnes, nominated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Death: August 24, 1946, in Washington, D.C.

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James Clark Mcreynolds
Noteworthy Opinions

James Clark Mcreynolds

In the annals of U.S. Supreme Court history, James Clark McReynolds is as well known for his disagreeable nature as for his conservative, even reactionary, opposition to the New Deal programs of President Franklin Roosevelt. Like Woodrow Wilson, the president who appointed him, McReynolds was a southerner and a gold Democrat. In fact, both men received their legal training at the University of Virginia in the early 1880s. Unlike Wilson, however, McReynolds took to the law and made it his career, a career that culminated in federal service as attorney general and as an associate justice for twenty-six of the most dynamic years in the history of the nation.

McReynolds, of Scotch-Irish descent, grew up on the family plantation in Elkton, Kentucky, near the Tennessee border; his father had served as a surgeon in the Confederate army. McReynolds excelled at Vanderbilt University, where he was valedictorian, and then studied with the legendary John Minor and others at the University of Virginia. On graduation, McReynolds served briefly as a secretary to Sen. Howell F. Jackson, D-Tenn., then moved on to a successful law practice in Nashville. While there, McReynolds taught commercial law at Vanderbilt's law school, serving with then-circuit court judge Horace Lurton, the man whose seat on the Supreme Court McReynolds would later occupy.

From 1903 to 1907, McReynolds served in Theodore Roosevelt's administration as assistant attorney general, specializing in antitrust law. He divided the next several years between private practice in New York City and service as a special federal prosecutor in the American Tobacco Company antitrust case. In 1913 President Wilson, after vehement opposition arose to his idea of appointing Louis Brandeis as attorney general, named McReynolds. Although McReynolds appears to have filled that job competently, his term was marked by an embarrassing incident concerning the postponement of a Mann Act prosecution of the son of a Democratic politician, and by friction with other members of the administration. When Justice Lurton died in July 1914, Wilson chose McReynolds, another southern Democrat, despite some concern over his irascible temperament.

In the years before the New Deal, McReynolds disagreed with the progressive-leaning majority, siding instead with those who championed private property interests. He dissented in cases such as Block v. Hirsh (1921), which supported rent control, and Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Company (1926), which upheld zoning.

During these preDNew Deal years, McReynolds also revealed, despite his record as a strong trustbuster, an impatience with government regulation of business. For example, in Federal Trade Commission v. Gratz (1921), McReynolds spoke for the majority that overturned the FTC's complaint against a cotton bagging manufacturer: “Nothing is alleged which would justify the conclusion that the public suffered injury or that competitors had reasonable ground for complaint. If real competition is to continue, the right of the individual to exercise reasonable discretion in respect of his own business methods must be preserved.”

McReynolds's record in the realm of civil liberties is somewhat enigmatic. In Berger v. United States (1921) and Stromberg v. California (1931), for example, he disagreed with the majority's tolerance. In Berger, a case involving the prosecution of German- and Austrian-born Socialist dissenters under the Espionage Act, the Supreme Court was faced with the allegation that Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was “prejudiced and biased against [some] defendants because of their nativity.” The majority of the Court concluded that Judge Landis had “no lawful right or power to preside as judge on the trial of the defendants upon the indictment.” In dissent, McReynolds—who throughout his judicial tenure demonstrated his own prejudice against Jews, African Americans, and female professionals—was more understanding of Landis: “Intense dislike of a class does not render the judge incapable of administering complete justice to one of its members.… And while ‘an overspeaking judge is no well-tuned cymbal,’ neither is an amorphous dummy unspotted by human emotions a becoming receptacle for judicial power.” These words came from a man who was openly racist and anti-Semitic and who declined to appear at functions attended by Justices Nathan Cardozo and Louis Brandeis.

In Stromberg, McRey-nolds dissented when the majority overturned the conviction of a Communist woman charged with flying a red flag at a summer camp for children. The Court found the state statute under which she was prosecuted to be “repugnant to the guarantee of liberty con-tained in the Fourteenth Amendment.” Yet, only eight years before, McRey-nolds had articulated an expansive view of the nature of liberty and in the process led the Court as it overturned a state law that forbade teaching foreign languages to children who had not passed the eighth grade. The case was Meyer v. Nebraska (1923), and McReynolds's rhetoric is a memorable challenge to the state's police power. McReynolds wrote concerning liberty guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment:

Without doubt it denotes not merely freedom from bodily restraint but also the right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.

Two years later, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), McReynolds wrote for the Court as it ruled unconstitutional a compulsory public school attendance statute. He cited Meyer and concluded that the act “unreasonably interferes with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.” On the foundation of Meyer and Pierce were cases like Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Roe v. Wade (1973) built by later, more liberal, justices.

It was during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency that McReynolds, aligned with Justices Pierce Butler, Willis Van Devanter, and George Sutherland—they were known as the “Four Horsemen”—earned his reputation as the Supreme Court's most reactionary member. In case after case, McReynolds registered his disagreement as the majority supported radical efforts by state and federal governments to rescue the nation from the Great Depression. One observer of the Court noted that as the liberal justices prevailed, McReynolds replaced Brandeis as the “great dissenter.”

In Home Building & Loan Assn. v. Blaisdell (1934), he joined Sutherland, who, dissenting from the Court's approval of Minnesota's mortgage moratorium law, warned of “future gradual but ever-advancing encroachments upon the sanctity of private and public contracts.” In Nebbia v. New York (1934), McReynolds fumed as the majority upheld the state's milk price-control scheme:

If now liberty or property may be struck down because of difficult circumstances, we must expect that hereafter every right must yield to the voice of an impatient majority when stirred by distressful exigency.… Certain fundamentals have been set beyond experimentation; the Constitution has released them from control by the state.

He asked skeptically whether “the milk business [is] so affected with a public interest that the Legislature may prescribe prices for sales by stores?” He searched in vain for a “reasonable relation” between means and ends. He ended with the observation that “the highest duty intrusted to the courts” was “zealously to uphold” the “dominance of the Constitution.”

In 1935, in a series of decisions known as the Gold Clause Cases, McReynolds offered his most memorable dissent, but he did so orally from the bench, not in the pages of the United States Reports. In the early days of the New Deal, after the nation left the gold standard and the gold content of the dollar was reduced, Congress, by joint resolution, had canceled the gold clause included in private contracts and government bonds as insurance against inflation. The printed version of McReynolds's objections to the majority's failure to negate this “confiscation of property rights and repudiation of national obligations” can be found following the holding in Norman v. Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (1935) and by reference in two subsequent cases. His tone was caustic: “Just men regard repudiation and spoilation of citizens by their sovereign with abhorrence,” two policies he regarded as unauthorized for a “federal government …. of delegated and limited powers,” and as contrary to the intent of the framers. His prediction for the future was dire indeed: “Loss of reputation for honorable dealing will bring us unending humiliation; the impending legal and moral chaos is appalling.”

The accounts vary concerning what McReynolds said from the bench when he read aloud his dissent. According to one report, he warned that “shame and humiliation are upon us” and “anarchy and despotism are at the door.” Others quote the angry justice as declaring, “This is Nero at his worst. The Constitution is gone!” The exact phrases are not as important, however, as the spirit in which they were offered. To the conservative members of the Supreme Court, these were dire times for the constitutional Republic.

As the New Deal progressed, so did McReynolds's pattern of protest at the excesses of government. His was the lone dissenting voice in Ashwander v. Tennessee Valley Authority (1936). The majority approved the plan for the sale of surplus power from the Wilson Dam, but McReynolds characterized the TVA's program as disingenuous and illegal:

If under the thin mask of disposing of property the United States can enter the business of generating, transmitting, and selling power …. with the definite design to accomplish ends wholly beyond the sphere marked out for them by the Constitution, an easy way has been found for breaking down the limitations heretofore supposed to guarantee protection against aggression.

One year later, in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish (1937), a case in which the Court upheld a Washington State minimum wage law for women, the victim of the Court's excessive deference, according to McReynolds, was the “liberty of contract” advanced by Adkins v. Children's Hospital (1923). In West Coast Hotel, McReynolds joined Sutherland, who had written the Court's opinion in Adkins, in reiterating the power of the Supreme Court to declare such statutes repugnant to the Constitution. The power base of the Court had shifted to the left, marginalizing McReynolds and the other conservatives as the New Deal built up steam.

McReynolds's dissent in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation (1937) best represents the rapidity of the Court's shift. In an opinion for the Four Horsemen objecting to the sweep of the National Labor Relations Act, McReynolds noted that the majority's holding “departs from well established principles followed in” two cases in which the Court had checked the New Deal program: Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States (1935) and Carter v. Carter Coal Co. (1936). As if to add special emphasis to the Court's about-face, McReynolds, in a departure from proper citation form, included the months and years of those two, now-rejected precedents. McReynolds reacted against a “view of congressional power [that] would extend it into almost every field of human industry.” “Any effect on interstate commerce by the discharge of employees shown here would be indirect and remote in the highest degree,” wrote McReynolds, rejecting the majority's expansive “stream of commerce” rationale.

McReynolds remained on the Court for another four years and died five years after retiring. During World War II, the cantankerous ex-justice adopted thirty-three British war children, corresponding with them and providing financial support. In his will, the lifelong bachelor left significant bequests to various charities. Even in death, McReynolds remained an enigma.


The McReynolds papers are collected at the University of Virginia Library in Charlottesville. Justice McReynolds's Supreme Court memorial, 334 U.S. v (1948), contains some helpful details concerning McReynolds's life, but little in the way of criticism or analysis of his judicial philosophy. Alexander Bickel provides some perceptive insights in The Judiciary and Responsible Government: 1910–1921, Part One (1984), volume 9 of the Holmes Devise History. Bickel relied in part on Barbara Barlin Schimmel's dissertation, “The Judicial Philosophy of Mr. Justice McReynolds” (Yale, 1964). See also two articles by Barry Cushman, “Clerking for Scrooge,” University of Chicago Law Review 70 (2003): 721; and “The Secret Lives of the Four Horsemen,” Virginia Law Review 83 (1997): 559.

Noteworthy Opinions

Federal Trade Commission v. Gratz, 253 U.S. 421 (1921)

Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923)

Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925)

Nebbia v. New York, 291 U.S. 502 (1934) (Dissent)

Norman v. Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, 294 U.S. 240 (1935) (Dissent)

Ashwander v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 297 U.S. 288 (1936) (Dissent)

National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, 301 U.S. 1 (1937) (Dissent)


Document Citation
Mcreynolds, James Clark, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 353 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
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