Mckenna, Joseph (1843–1926)

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MCKENNA, JOSEPH (1843–1926)

Few Justices sat longer upon the Supreme Court than Joseph McKenna, the son of an Irish immigrant baker, who served for twenty-seven years from 1898 until 1925 under three Chief Justices. During McKenna's tenure, the nation's political system grappled with the problems generated by industrialization, urbanization, and rising class conflict. The same problems followed many of the issues that came before the Court, whose decisions lacked consistency and predictability.

When President william mckinley named McKenna, his old House of Representatives colleague, to the seat vacated by Justice stephen j. field, he recognized not distinction at the bar or on the bench but loyal service. McKenna had been a four-term representative from California, a member of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and attorney general of the United States. In these roles McKenna had earned a justified reputation for devotion to the Republican party, the protective tariff, and the interests of his chief patron, the railroad mogul Leland Stanford. Even as a member of the circuit court, McKenna had written several opinions protecting Stanford's powerful Southern Pacific company from the unfriendly behavior of local and state officials who sought to regulate the carrier's rates and terminal facilities.

As a member of the Supreme Court during the high tide of the Progressive era, however, McKenna supported the efforts of theodore roosevelt's and william howard taft's administrations to bring the country's major railroads under a larger measure of administrative control through the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). Times had changed. By the turn of the century, even the railroads desired a degree of federal regulation that would protect them from conflicting state laws and the debilitating rate wars which drained away profits. McKenna wrote opinions for the Court that confirmed the new relationship between the carriers and the federal government by upholding the ICC's statutory powers with respect to fact-gathering and rate-making.

McKenna also became a robust supporter of congressional efforts to regulate other aspects of the nation's economic and social life under authority of the commerce clause. He joined Justice john m. harlan's crucial opinion in champion v. ames (1903), which laid the foundation for a national police power by giving Congress the authority to exclude from the channels of interstate commerce supposedly harmful goods such as lottery tickets. McKenna later applied this principle in his own opinions, which sustained the pure food and drug act and also the Mann Act, banning the transportation of women in interstate commerce for immoral purposes.

To his great credit, McKenna was able to accept the extension of the national power doctrine to child labor in the famous case of hammer v. dagenhart (1918), even while others who had endorsed the earlier decisions turned their backs upon logic and history. Nor did he join the majority in the case of adair v. united states (1908), where six Justices overturned Congress's attempt to ban yellow dog contracts on the nation's railroads. McKenna's dissent placed the authority of Congress to regulate commerce above the contractual freedom of corporate management.

A stout nationalist and a moderate Republican who remained capable of accepting many progressive reforms, McKenna nonetheless displayed a checkered record with regard to state and federal efforts to assist the working class and organized labor. He refused, for example, to permit the state of Kansas to outlaw yellow dog contracts in all private industry, although he endorsed Congress's effort to do so on the interstate railroads. He cast his vote with rufus peckham in lochner v. new york (1905) and with george h. sutherland in adkins v. children ' shospital (1923), when the majority struck down maximum hours and minimum wage legislation on the grounds of freedom of contract. Yet McKenna spurned that conservative shibboleth in muller v. oregon (1908), wilson v. new (1917), and bunting v. oregon (1917). On the other hand, not many opinions could match in reactionary tone McKenna's dissent in the Arizona Employers' Liability Cases (1919), where he argued that liability without fault violated the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment.

Like most of his brethren on the white court, McKenna gave the green light to federal and state efforts to stamp out dissent during world war i. He voted to uphold the convictions of Charles Schenck and Eugene V. Debs as well as those of Jacob Abrams and Joseph Gilbert, although the latter two cases provoked sharp dissents from oliver wendell holmes and louis d. brandeis. If sometimes contractual freedom had to give way before the power of Congress, McKenna believed, so, too, did the liberty to protest against the government in time of war.

Michael E. Parrish


Mc Devitt, Brother Matthew 1946 Joseph McKenna: Associate Justice of the United States. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press.

Semonche, John E. 1978 Charting the Future: The Supreme Court Responds to a Changing Society, 1890–1920. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

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Mckenna, Joseph (1843–1926)

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