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Rev. Joey N. Welsh:
Two Kentuckians and Supreme Court legacies. II



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Another Angle. Different sides of a coin. Two Kentuckians and their Supreme Court legacies. Part II. Justice James Clark Reynolds was first published 20 November 2005 in the Hart County News-Herald.
To see other articles by this author, enter "Rev. Joey N. Welsh," or "Another Angle," in the searchbox. The next earlier Another Angle: Two Kentuckians and Supreme Court legacies. Part I. Justice Brandeis.

By The Rev. Joey N. Welsh

If James Clark McReynolds is remembered at all as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, it is as one of the most abrasive and unpleasant men who ever sat on the Court. Born in Elkton in 1862, he excelled at Vanderbilt University, graduating as valedictorian of his class in 1882, after which he attended law school at the University of Virginia.


For several years McReynolds practiced law in Nashville, and after the turn of the century he served in Washington, D. C. as an Assistant Attorney General while Theodore Roosevelt was in office. He then left his federal position and maintained a legal practice in New York for several years until the 1912 election of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson appointed him U. S. Attorney General in 1913, but by 1914 had found him to be a difficult, obstructive, and unpleasant member of his cabinet. Not wanting to anger the southerners who had been McReynolds' boosters, Wilson nominated him for a vacancy on the Court, getting him out of the cabinet under the guise of a promotion.

After his confirmation, McReynolds quickly established himself as a brusque and insensitive presence on the Court. Wilson may have felt relieved to have McReynolds out of his cabinet, but the Supreme Court had to labor with McReynolds' personal nastiness until 1941. When Brandeis was confirmed in 1916, McReynolds was known to be displeased that a Jew had made it to the Court, and for three years he avoided speaking to Justice Brandeis.

It is the custom of the Court for the members to sit for a group photograph each year. In 1924 the seating arrangements for the photograph called for McReynolds and Brandeis to be next to one another. McReynolds refused to sit next to a Jew, and he boycotted the photography session. Chief Justice William Howard Taft canceled the photograph for 1924. Taft said that McReynolds seemed, "to delight in making others uncomfortable." When Brandeis retired from the Court in 1939, McReynolds declined to sign the traditional letter of thanks and gratitude from the other Court members. Newspaper columnist Drew Pearson referred to McReynolds as Scrooge.

When a second Jew, Benjamin Cardozo, came on the Court, McReynolds read a newspaper at his swearing in ceremony, referring to Cardozo as "another one." McReynolds, who never spoke to Cardozo at all, failed to attend when Felix Frankfurter was sworn in as an Associate Justice, apparently saying, "My God, another Jew on the Court!"

Justice McReynolds refused to hire any staff or law clerks whom he viewed as less than proper or who had interest in anything beyond serving him. He never married and did not think that women were capable of work in any position of authority. He refused to consider as clerks any men who smoked, drank, dated, or were married, or were Jewish or African-American. He did hire an Africa-American man, Harry Parker, as his personal messenger.

In his votes on the court he opposed anything he viewed as a legal innovation, though he wrote few dissents, even when his position lost; he thought dissents were a waste of time. He voted to strike down the legislation of the New Deal, including the National Recovery Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Social Security Act. After he retired from the Court in 1941, he lived in Washington until his death in 1946. There were no friends or family with him in the hospital when he died, and no Justices attended his funeral or burial in Elkton.

Apparently, no schools or other institutions are named for McReynolds; his major legacy is in the stories of his unpleasantness.

In 1953, when Harry Parker, McReynolds' aged messenger, died, the Chief Justice and several Associate Justices came to the funeral.

McReynolds and Brandeis, both Kentuckians, both talented and intelligent, used their gifts in divergent ways. Brandeis, who was sometimes called "the people's attorney," saw a vision of what could be, and he worked toward it. McReynolds may have seen the future, but if he did he tried mightily to beat it back. Two different lives, two sides of the coin - which kind of Kentuckian do you choose to be, how do you use your talents, and which side of the coin is yours?

E-mail: joey_n_welsh@hotmail.com


This story was posted on 2010-08-22 06:31:15
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