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Portrait of James Clark McReynolds
Portrait of James Clark McReynolds.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.
James Clark McReynolds

b. February 3, 1862, Elkton, KY
d. August 24, 1946, Washington, D.C.

U.S. Attorney General

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

James Clark McReynolds was raised on a plantation in Kentucky and graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1882 at the top of his class. He went on to University of Virginia law school, graduated in 1884, and established a successful private practice in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1900 he began a three-year stint teaching at Vanderbilt as an adjunct professor of law. In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him Assistant Attorney General in the antitrust division of the Justice Department. In 1907 he left and opened a private practice in New York City. A strong backer of Woodrow Wilson in the election of 1912, McReynolds was made U.S. Attorney General when Wilson took office.

Irascible and discourteous, McReynolds was a difficult colleague. In part to get McReynolds out of his cabinet, Wilson appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1914. There he proved one of the most personally unpleasant justices in the history of the Court. Justice William Howard Taft called him "selfish to the last degree" and "fuller of prejudice than any man I have ever known." He was openly anti-Semitic and refused to speak to Justice Louis Brandeis for three years, to sit near him during Court ceremonies, or to sign any opinions written by him. During the 1932 swearing-in ceremony for Justice Benjamin Cardozo, who was also Jewish, McReynolds ostentatiously read a newspaper and muttered "another one." Taft observed that McReynolds "seems to delight in making others uncomfortable." He was a confirmed misogynist and had a long list of petty dislikes that included red nail polish on women, wristwatches, and tobacco. He easily took offense at perceived wrongs and nursed his hostilities as long as possible. He was also given to venting about "un-Americans" and "political subversives."

McReynolds had the single-minded passion of a zealot in opposing federal legislation aimed at regulating the economy or achieving social ends. These views aligned him with the majority of the Court in the 1920s and 1930s, but triggered controversy when, after the Great Depression, Congress attempted to address the crisis with New Deal legislation aimed at stimulating the economy and protecting American workers. McReynolds, together with Justices George Sutherland, Pierce Butler, and Willis Van Devanter, formed a conservative bloc and struck down every major legislative initiative. Referred to by New Dealers as the "Four Horsemen," this group so frustrated President Roosevelt that he tried to pack the Court with additional justices to swing its vote. The nationwide controversy that ensued revealed deep support among the American people for social programs and persuaded the Court's moderate justices to side with liberals in upholding New Deal legislation.

In 1941, isolated and embittered, McReynolds retired from the Court.

Louis D. Brandeis Sandra Day O'Connor Henry Baldwin Peter Daniel James McReynolds William Douglas Stephen Field Joseph Story view all biographies