McReynolds, James Clark

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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James Clark McReynolds served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1914 to 1941. McReynolds was a very conservative justice who gained prominence for his opposition to the NEW DEAL legislation of the 1930s and for his unprecedented number of opinions declaring acts of Congress unconstitutional.

McReynolds was born on February 3, 1862, in Elkton, Kentucky, the son of a prominent surgeon. McReynolds graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1882 and then attended the University of Virginia law school, graduating in 1884. He established a law practice in Nashville and became a successful business attorney. In 1900 he was appointed a professor of law at Vanderbilt.

During the period 1886 to 1900, McReynolds established himself as a conservative Democrat, running unsuccessfully in 1886 for Congress despite substantial Republican

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support. Although a Democrat, he found favor with Republican president THEODORE ROOSEVELT, who appointed McReynolds assistant U.S. attorney general in 1903. He remained in the JUSTICE DEPARTMENT until 1907.

In that year he moved to New York and joined a large law firm. In 1913 Democratic president WOODROW WILSON appointed McReynolds attorney general. He gained prominence for his prosecution of antitrust cases but left the post in 1914 when Wilson appointed him to the Supreme Court.

McReynolds's conservatism was consistent and unbending. He believed in a restricted role for the federal government, which meant that he opposed federal social and economic regulation. His views matched those of most of his fellow justices during the 1920s and 1930s, but the Great Depression and the New Deal legislation of President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT soon put McReynolds in the spotlight. McReynolds, along with Justices GEORGE SUTHERLAND, WILLIS VAN DEVANTER, and PIERCE BUTLER, a group known as the "Four Horsemen," became the core of opposition to federal efforts to revitalize the economy and create a social safety net. McReynolds voted with the majority to strike down as unconstitutional the NATIONAL INDUSTRIAL RECOVERY ACT, 48 Stat. 195 (1933), in Schechter Poultry Corporation v. United States, 295 U.S. 495, 55 S. Ct. 837, 79 L. Ed. 1570 (1935), and the Agricultural Adjustment Act, 7 U.S.C.A. § 601 et seq., in United States v. Butler, 297 U.S. 1, 56 S. Ct. 312, 80 L. Ed. 477 (1936).

As McReynolds and the Court struck down each new piece of New Deal legislation, Roosevelt became frustrated. He proposed a...

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