Mcreynolds, James C. (1862–1946)

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MCREYNOLDS, JAMES C. (1862–1946)

James Clark McReynolds, a Tennessee Democrat, first came to national attention as an antitrust prosecutor during the theodore roosevelt and william howard taft administrations. He was a Tennessee Gold Democrat, friendly with Colonel Edward House, woodrow wilson's key adviser. His antitrust reputation led to his appointment as Wilson's attorney general in 1913. Within a year, however, McReynolds found himself at odds with the administration and powerful congressmen. Wilson "kicked McReynolds upstairs" to the Supreme Court in 1914. From then until his retirement in 1941, McReynolds distinguished himself as a consistent and implacable foe of Progressive and new deal regulatory programs.

McReynold's hostility to trusts largely derived from his ideas of individualism and freedom from arbitrary restraints. Throughout his judicial career he resolutely supported the business community and was instinctively suspicious of governmental regulation. "If real competition is to continue, the right of the individual to exercise reasonable discretion in respect of his own business methods must be preserved," McReynolds wrote in federal trade commission v. gratz (1920). In that case, the Court limited the authority of the FTC, the creation of which had been one of the Wilson administration's primary achievements; McReynolds wrote that the courts, not the commission, would decide the meaning of "unfair method of competition." In St. Louis and O'Fallon Railroad v. United States (1929) the Court resolved a long-standing dispute between the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and railroads as to whether original or replacement costs should be considered for valuation and rate purposes. Speaking for a narrow majority, McReynolds overturned ICC policy by ruling that the commission had to base its determination of rates on replacement costs, which were higher.

McReynolds resisted the claims of organized labor. For example, he joined his colleagues in rejecting federal child labor laws and a District of Columbia minimum wage statute. When the Court in 1919 sustained an Arizona law holding employers responsible for on-the-job accidents whether or not they were negligent, McReynolds dissented, caustically arguing that such laws served "to stifle enterprise, produce discontent, strife, idleness and pauperism."

Without exception, McReynolds supported the conviction of political radicals during the "Red Scare" period following world war i a decade later, when the Court turned against restrictive state measures on speech and press, McReynolds parted company with the majority, dissenting in stromberg v. california (1931) and near v. minnesota (1931). Similarly, McReynolds's ill-concealed contempt for blacks led to dissent from decisions striking down an all-white primary law and ordering a new trial for the Scottsboro defendants. Finally, when the Court, in missouri ex rel. gaines v. canada (1938), began its long process of overturning segregation, McReynolds bitterly assailed the majority opinion.

Some of McReynolds's opinions defending individual rights remain relevant. In meyer v. nebraska (1923) he spoke for the Court in striking down a state statute prohibiting German language instruction in the public schools; in pierce v. society of sisters (1925) he ruled against an Oregon statute that had the effect of proscribing parochial school education; and in carroll v. united states (1925) he vehemently protested against violations of the fourth amendment in enforcing prohibition. In myers v. united states (1926) he dissented from what he considered to be an almost unlimited approval of presidential power to remove federal officials, a view vindicated nine years later when the Court unanimously rejected President franklin d. roosevelt's attempt to remove a federal trade commissioner.

The New Deal years provide the sharpest focus for McReynolds's views of constitutional law, both when he joined in majority opinions and later in the bitter dissents that represent his most familiar legacy. McReynolds combined his ideological reaction to the New Deal with a passionate, almost pathological, hatred for Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Justice was scathing in his private remarks and, at times, indiscreet in public. In his courtroom dissent in the gold clause cases (1935) McReynolds emotionally proclaimed: "This is Nero at his worst. The Constitution is gone!" When the New Deal gained a few early Court victories, McReynolds dissented, as in the gold clause cases, in nebbia v. new york (1934), and in ashwander v. tennessee valley authority (1936). As one of the "Four Horsemen," he participated in striking down thirteen New Deal measures between 1934 and 1936. When the Court made its famous shift, beginning in 1937 with west coast hotel company v. parrish and the wagner actcases, McReynolds joined his fellow conservatives in outraged dissent. As their spokesman in National Labor Relations Board v. Friedman-Marks Clothing (1937), he argued that the wagner act regulated production, not commerce, and thus exceeded the boundaries of congressional power as set in long-standing precedents. Similarly, he considered the social security act unconstitutional; he registered a lone dissent against the approval of the securities registration provisions of the public utilities holding company act; and, finally, he provided the sole dissent to the Court's recognition in 1940 that labor picketing was entitled to protection as an exercise of freedom of speech.

Few Supreme Court Justices have been more outspoken or more doctrinaire than McReynolds; and few have been so incompatible with colleagues. McReynolds refused to speak to fellow Wilson appointee John H. Clarke, who was too liberal, and to louis d. brandeis and benjamin n. cardozo, who were both liberal and Jewish. Even Chief Justice Taft found him "selfish and prejudiced" and difficult to like. He was committed to laissez-faire individualism and racial segregation, and he was unyielding and hostile to any political beliefs he regarded as deviant.

Stanley I. Kutler


Mason, Alpheus Thomas 1956 Harlan Fiske Stone: Pillar of the Law. New York: Viking.

Paschal, Joel F. 1951 Mr. Justice Sutherland: A Man Against the State. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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Mcreynolds, James C. (1862–1946)

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