Joseph McKenna (August 10, 1843 – November 21, 1926) was an American politician who served in all three branches of the U.S. federal government as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, as U.S. Attorney General and as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. He is one of seventeen members of the House of Representatives who subsequently served on the Supreme Court (including two Chief Justices).[2]

Joseph McKenna
McKenna in his judicial robes
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
In office
January 26, 1898 – January 5, 1925[1]
Nominated byWilliam McKinley
Preceded byStephen Field
Succeeded byHarlan Stone
42nd United States Attorney General
In office
March 5, 1897 – January 25, 1898
PresidentWilliam McKinley
Preceded byJudson Harmon
Succeeded byJohn Griggs
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
In office
March 17, 1892 – March 5, 1897
Nominated byBenjamin Harrison
Preceded byLorenzo Sawyer
Succeeded byWilliam Morrow
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from California's 3rd district
In office
March 4, 1885 – March 28, 1892
Preceded byBarclay Henley
Succeeded bySamuel Hilborn
Personal details
Born(1843-08-10)August 10, 1843
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedNovember 21, 1926(1926-11-21) (aged 83)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political partyRepublican
SpouseAmanda Borneman
EducationSaint Joseph's University



Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Irish Catholic immigrants, he attended St. Joseph's College and the Collegiate Institute in Benicia, California. After being admitted to the California bar in 1865, he entered private practice for one year and then became District Attorney for Solano County and then campaigned for and won a seat in the California State Assembly for two years (1875–1877). He retired after one term and an unsuccessful bid for Speaker.[3]

After two unsuccessful attempts, McKenna was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1885 and served for four terms. While in Congress, he was a "vehement proponent" of Chinese exclusion.[4]

He was appointed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1892 by President Benjamin Harrison.[3]

In 1897 he was appointed the 42nd Attorney General of the United States by President William McKinley, and served in that capacity until 1898.[5]

McKenna as a younger man

McKenna was nominated by President McKinley on December 16, 1897, as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, to succeed Stephen Johnson Field. He was confirmed by the Senate on January 21, 1898, by a voice vote.[6] He then took the judicial oath of office on January 26, 1898.[1] Conscious of his limited credentials, McKenna attended Columbia Law School for about a month between his nomination and Senate confirmation to improve his legal education before taking his seat on the Court.[7][8][9]

Although he never developed a consistent legal philosophy, McKenna was the author of a number of important decisions. One of the most notable was his opinion in the case of United States v. U.S. Steel Corporation (1920) which held that antitrust cases would be decided on the "rule of reason" principle—only alleged monopolistic combinations that are in unreasonable restraint of trade are illegal.[10]

He authored 614 majority opinions, and 146 dissenting opinions during his time on the bench.[11] His passionate rebuttal to the denial of "pecuniary benefit" to a wife whose husband had been killed while working on the railroad was among those which brought a change to the Employer Liability Act. One of his most noteworthy opinions was Hipolite Egg Co. v. United States, 220 U.S. 45 (1911),[12][13] in which a unanimous Court upheld the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

In Hoke v. United States (1913), he concurred in upholding the Mann Act. However, four years later, he dissented from the Court's opinion in Caminetti v. United States (1917), which held the act applied to private, noncommercial enticements to cross state lines for purposes of a sexual liaison. According to McKenna, the Act regulated only commercial vice, i.e., "immoralities having a mercenary purpose."[14]

McKenna wrote Williams v. Mississippi, upholding the state's racist 1890 Constitution that disenfranchised nearly every African American in the state through poll taxes and literacy tests, while exempting whites through a grandfather clause.[15]

While McKenna was generally quite favorable to federal power, he joined the Court's substantive due process jurisprudence and voted with the majority in 1905's Lochner v. New York, which struck down a state maximum-hours law for bakery workers.[14] This decision carried broader implications for the scope of federal power, at least until the New Deal and the 1937 switch-in-time-that-saved-nine West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish. (See Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937.)

McKenna resigned from the Court in January 1925 at the suggestion of Chief Justice William Howard Taft.[16] McKenna's ability to perform his duties had been diminished significantly by a stroke suffered 10 years earlier, and by the end of his tenure McKenna could not be counted on to write coherent opinions.[16]

McKenna was one of 15 Catholic justices (out of the 116 total through the appointment of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson) in the history of the Supreme Court.[17]

McKenna married Amanda Borneman in 1869, and the couple had three daughters and one son.[14] McKenna died on November 21, 1926.[14] in Washington, D.C. His remains are interred at the city's Mount Olivet Cemetery.[18][19]

See also



  1. ^ a b "Justices 1789 to Present". Washington, D.C.: Supreme Court of the United States. Retrieved February 18, 2022.
  2. ^ "Members Who Also Served on the Supreme Court". Clerk of the House of Representatives. Archived from the original on November 13, 2017. Retrieved March 14, 2013.
  3. ^ a b Joseph McKenna at Archived 2010-03-04 at the Wayback Machine Supreme Court Historical Society.
  4. ^ Salyer, Lucy (1995). Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law. The University of North Carolina Press. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-8078-4530-1.
  5. ^ "Department of Justice, Joseph McKenna Attorney General". Archived from the original on 2014-10-19. Retrieved 2020-11-22.
  6. ^ "Supreme Court Nominations (1789-Present)". Washington, D.C.: United States Senate. Retrieved February 18, 2022.
  7. ^ Hall, Timothy L. (2001). Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4381-0817-9.
  8. ^ McDevitt, Matthew (1946). Joseph McKenna, Associate Justice of the United States. Catholic University of America Press. p. 105.
  9. ^ Purcell, Richard (1945). "Justice Joseph McKenna". Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia. 56 (3): 203 – via {{cite journal}}: External link in |via= (help)
  10. ^ Joseph McKennat at Archived 2010-08-14 at the Wayback Machine infoplease.
  11. ^ Bush, Supreme Court Decisions
  12. ^ "Hipolite Egg Co. v. United States syllabus at". Archived from the original on 2021-11-08. Retrieved 2010-02-28.
  13. ^ "Hipolite Egg Co. v. United States full text opinion at". Archived from the original on 2010-03-16. Retrieved 2010-02-28.
  14. ^ a b c d Ariens, Michael, Joseph McKenna at Archived 2010-07-14 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ Serwer, Adam (2020-10-22). "Pack the Court, Save the Vote". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on 2020-10-23. Retrieved 2020-10-22.
  16. ^ a b Appel, JM. Anticipating the Incapacitated Justice Archived 2019-03-27 at the Wayback Machine, August 22, 2009.
  17. ^ Religious affiliation of Supreme Court justices Justice Sherman Minton converted to Catholicism after his retirement.
  18. ^ "Christensen, George A. (1983) Here Lies the Supreme Court: Gravesites of the Justices, Yearbook". Archived from the original on September 3, 2005. Retrieved 2013-11-24. Supreme Court Historical Society at Internet Archive.
  19. ^ See also, Christensen, George A., Here Lies the Supreme Court: Revisited, Journal of Supreme Court History, Volume 33 Issue 1, Pages 17 – 41 (19 Feb 2008), University of Alabama.

Further reading

California Assembly
Preceded by
James Dixon
William H. Northcutt
W. S. M. Wright
Member of the California Assembly
from the 19th district

Served alongside: Thomas M. Swan
Succeeded by
John T. Dare
Richard C. Haile
U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from California's 3rd congressional district

Succeeded by
Legal offices
Preceded by Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
Succeeded by
Preceded by United States Attorney General
Succeeded by
Preceded by Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Succeeded by