Justice James Clark McReynolds

Justice James Clark McReynolds joined the U.S. Supreme Court on October 12, 1914, replacing Justice Horace Harmon Lurton. McReynolds was born on February 3, 1862 in southwestern Kentucky. He graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1882 as valedictorian. Two years later, he received his law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. He then entered private practice in Nashville, Tennessee. From 1900 to 1903, he taught at the Vanderbilt University Law School.

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed McReynolds as Assistant U.S. Attorney General. He remained in that position for four years before entering private practice in New York City. However, McReynolds continued to represent the federal government in antitrust cases. President Woodrow Wilson then appointed him as U.S. Attorney General in March 1913.

Barely a year later, on August 19, 1914, Wilson nominated McReynolds to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on August 29 in a 44-6 vote, and he took the judicial oath about six weeks later. McReynolds would spend over a quarter of a century on the Court.

Much of his tenure coincided with the "Lochner era," in which the Court often struck down economic regulations on due process grounds, such as freedom of contract. McReynolds firmly endorsed this view. He became known as one of the "Four Horsemen," a group that also included Justices George Sutherland, Willis Van Devanter, and Pierce Butler. They repeatedly voted against New Deal legislation during the Great Depression. The Court eventually shifted toward a more lenient view of economic regulations in the late 1930s, leaving McReynolds in a dissenting position.

History has taken a kinder view of two decisions that McReynolds wrote in the 1920s involving due process and schools. In Meyer v. Nebraska, he wrote for the Court in striking down a law that restricted foreign-language education. His opinion famously defined the liberty guaranteed by due process as protecting the right "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 [one’s] own conscience, and generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men." In Pierce v. Society of Sisters, McReynolds similarly led the Court in striking down an Oregon law that required children to attend public schools.

McReynolds retired from the Court on January 31, 1941 and was replaced by Justice James F. Byrnes. He died on August 24, 1946 in Washington, D.C. and was buried in his hometown in Kentucky.

Selected Opinions by Justice McReynolds:

U.S. v. Miller (1939)

Topic: Gun Rights

In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a “shotgun having a barrel of less than 18 inches in length” at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia, a court cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.

Burnet v. Logan (1931)

Topic: Taxes

When a taxpayer might never recoup her capital investment from payments only conditionally promised, she properly demanded the return of her capital investment before assessment of any taxable profit based on conjecture.

Taft v. Bowers (1929)

Topic: Taxes

Nothing in the Constitution lends support to the theory that gain actually resulting from the increased value of capital can be treated as taxable income in the hands of the recipient only so far as the increase occurred while they owned the property.

Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925)

Topic: Due Process

The fundamental theory of liberty on which all governments in the U.S. rest excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.

Meyer v. Nebraska (1923)

Topic: Due Process

A state law forbidding the teaching of any modern language other than English to a child who has not successfully passed the eighth grade invades the liberty guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Newberry v. U.S. (1921)

Topic: Voting & Elections

The power to control party primaries for designating candidates for the Senate is not within the grant of power to Congress to regulate the manner of holding elections.