Justice Joseph McKenna

Justice Joseph McKenna joined the U.S. Supreme Court on January 26, 1898, replacing Justice Stephen Johnson Field. McKenna was born on August 10, 1843 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but his family moved to California in the 1850s. There, he graduated from the law department of the Benicia Collegiate Institute in 1865 and was admitted to the California bar in the same year. McKenna spent a short period as District Attorney of Solano County soon afterward. He also served one term in the California state legislature in the 1870s.

McKenna twice failed to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, but the third time was the charm. He finally reached the House in 1885 and would be reelected to three more terms. McKenna resigned from the House in early 1892 after he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. In 1897, he joined the administration of President William McKinley as U.S. Attorney General.

McKenna spent just nine months as Attorney General before McKinley nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court on December 16, 1897. The Senate confirmed him on January 21, 1898, and he took the judicial oath five days later.

McKenna wrote a pair of opinions upholding the Pure Food and Drug Act and an anti-sex trafficking law called the Mann Act. He also upheld a state law limiting the work day to 10 hours, and he voiced a progressive view of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. However, McKenna wrote for the Court in rejecting a challenge to the 1890 Mississippi Constitution, which sought to disenfranchise African-Americans.

McKenna suffered a stroke in 1915, which diminished his capacity during his last decade on the Court. Chief Justice William Howard Taft finally persuaded him to resign. McKenna left the Court on January 5, 1925 and died on November 21, 1926 in Washington, D.C. Justice Harlan Fiske Stone replaced him on the Court.

Selected Opinions by Justice McKenna:

Weems v. U.S. (1910)

Topic: Death Penalty & Criminal Sentencing

The Eighth Amendment is progressive and may acquire wider meaning as public opinion becomes enlightened by humane justice.