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Supreme Court Justices

James McReynolds (1862-1946)

James McReynolds was born in Kentucky on February 3, 1862. After graduating from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, McReynolds studied law at the University of Virginia, graduating in 1884. McReynolds first worked for Tennessee Senator Howell Jackson, later a Supreme Court Justice, and then established a successful law practice in Nashville. At age 38, McReynolds was named a professor at Vanderbilt University. He then moved to Washington, D.C. in 1903 to serve as an assistant attorney general. In 1907, he left government service to practice law in New York. President Woodrow Wilson named McReynolds Attorney General in 1913. A possibly apocryphal story is that Wilson did not think much of McReynolds's work at the Department of Justice, but instead of firing him, decided to rid himself of McReynolds by nominating him to the Supreme Court in 1914. If true, Wilson's decision had terrifically adverse consequences for the United States. McReynolds was a racist and anti-Semite. There is no official photograph of the Supreme Court in 1924 because McReynolds refused to sit next to Justice Louis D. Brandeis, the first Jewish Justice, as required by the Court's seating protocol (which is based on seniority). McReynolds was a firm believer in laissez-faire economic theory, and believed this economic theory was enshrined in the Constitution. Those cases were repudiated by the Court's "switch in time that saved nine" in 1937. After the Court's about-face that year, McReynolds found himself largely in dissent. However, two decisions that survived the so-called Lochner era, Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) (holding unconstitutional Nebraska law prohibiting teaching of German in private school) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) (holding unconstitutional Oregon law requiring parents to send their children to public school), were written by McReynolds. McReynolds retired from the Court in 1941.

McReynolds never married. He died on August 24, 1946. 

Further reading: The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox: A Year in the Life of a Supreme Court Clerk in FDR's Washington (Dennis J. Hutchinson and David J. Garrow eds. 2002)