Joseph McKenna rose from humble immigrant roots as a baker's son to a position of prominence in California Republican politics. McKenna served as county district attorney (1866–1870), U.S. Congressman, justice of the Ninth U.S. Circuit court (1892–1897), and, briefly, U.S. attorney general (1897). His controversial nomination to the Supreme Court in 1897 led to a twenty-seven-year tenure.
McKenna was born in Philadelphia on August 10, 1843, to Irish immigrant parents. He became head of the family at age fifteen when his father died shortly after moving the eight-member household to California. By age twenty-two, and while working several jobs, McKenna had studied enough law on his own to pass the California bar. One year later, despite little experience, he was elected district attorney for Solano County. He owed his rapid success to help from railroad baron leland stanford, the state's governor. In time, his loyalty to Stanford earned him three straight Republican nominations for Congress. He finally won in 1885. In Washington, D.C., McKenna opposed business regulations, supported federal land grants to the railroads, and sponsored legislation that would have made Chinese immigrants carry identification cards.
In 1892, on the urging of Stanford, who had become a U.S. senator, President benjamin
harrison appointed McKenna to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Opponents protested that McKenna was unqualified and, moreover, beholden to railroad interests, but the nomination succeeded. He held the seat for four years, largely without incident or note; yet occasionally he proved his critics right about his allegiances. In Southern Pacific Co. v. Board of Railroad Commissioners, 78 F. 236 (C.C.N.D. Cal. 1896), for example, he blocked the California legislature's attempt to set railroad fares, arguing that the proposed rates were unfair to the railroads.
While serving on the Ways and Means Committee in Congress, McKenna had befriended fellow Republican william mckinley. McKinley became president in 1896 and in 1897 made McKenna U.S. attorney general. Only a few months later, McKinley nominated McKenna to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court created by the departure of Justice stephen field. Again, there was opposition, with newspapers and lawmakers calling him unfit for the responsibility. However, the nomination succeeded.
Of McKenna's 633 opinions, only a handful were majority opinions. These came in important cases, however, such as Hipolite Egg Co. v. United States, 220 U.S. 45, 31 S. Ct. 364, 55 L. Ed. 364 (1911), one of the decisions during the era that upheld federal police power under the Constitution's commerce clause. Generally regarded as a hard-working justice, his body of opinions shows that he developed a pragmatism and clarity of expression in his twenty-seven years on the bench. Slowed by age, he resigned in 1925 under the advice of Chief Justice william howard taft. He died several months later on November 21, 1926, in Washington, D.C.