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constitutional Democrat. He characterized his own ideas as those "of an old-time Cleveland Democrat" and "of a gold Democrat.”
He was the supreme type of the rugged individualist. Ruggedness was his outstanding characteristic. He was a large, six-foot frame of a man, with erect, military bearing and the aspect of an early Roman senator. He had a face of great strength, which might have seemed carved from Tennessee granite, but for the illumination of steel-blue eyes and a suddenly flashing smile. It was a face which could express every shade of feeling, from genuine graciousness and generosity of spirit, through flashing wit and humor, to the most satiric scorn.
As an individualist he believed in the individual and his rights. He believed also in the reserved powers of the States. He resented and resisted the growing exercise of power by the Federal Government in fields formerly conceived to have been reserved to the States. He was a strict constructionist, who felt an impelling conviction that the Federal Government ought to be held within the framework of its field of action as delegated to it by the people in the written Constitution and who resisted what he felt to be a tendency to amend the Constitution and to expand Federal power by judicial interpretation. And yet, likewise as an individualist, he was strongly opposed to monopoly and was a vigorous supporter of the antitrust laws.
He served over a quarter of a century on the Supreme Court: through World War I, through the following great depression, through the era of the vast expansion of Federal power, through the dramatic and historic attack by the Executive on the Judiciary, and through a period in which, ironically enough, he succeeded Louis Dembitz Brandeis as "the Great Dissenter.” He held on with grim determination after the times had turned against his views and retired just two days before his seventyninth birthday. He presents the paradox of having come
to the Court as a much-vaunted, antitrust liberal and of having left it as the most die-hard representative of the conservative wing. Yet a careful study of his opinions throughout the quarter-century will disclose a pattern of in flexible and unyielding consistency. It was not James Clark MeReynolds who changed. It was the times, the country, the prevailing constitutional views and the Supreme Court that changed. Justice McReynolds remained standing in his place, like a granite mountain.
Two illustrations will suffice to show his immovability. They are both in the field of his opposition to what he deemed to be encroachments of the Federal Government upon the reserved powers of the States.
One of his most famous dissents was a short one of three paragraphs in the Oregon-Washington Railway and Navigation Company case, in 1926. The Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Taft, held that an act of Congress covered the whole field of plant disease control, so far as its spread by interstate transportation could be affected and restrained, and that consequently a statute of the State of Washington attempting quarantine against the interstate importation of alfalfa weevil was invalid. Justice McReynolds delivered a characteristically vigorous dissent, joined in by Justice Sutherland, in which he took the position that the act of Congress did not by its own terms conflict with the State statute, that the Secretary of Agriculture had taken no action under the powers delegated to him by Congress which conflicted with the State statute, and in which he concluded: “It is a serious thing to paralyze the efforts of a State to protect her people against impending calamity, and leave them to the slow charity of a far-off and perhaps supine federal bureau. No such purpose should be attributed to Congress unless indicated beyond reasonable doubt.” Congress promptly amended the Federal act interpreted in that case and made it clear that the views of the McReynolds dissent should prevail.
His last official action, on January 20, 1941, was to join with Chief Justice Hughes in concurrence in a dissent written by Mr. Justice Stone in the Davidowitz case. The majority, in an opinion by Mr. Justice Black, held that a Pennsylvania alien-registration statute was invalid as in conflict with the Federal Alien Registration Act, which was held to have occupied the field to the exclusion of state legislation. The dissenters saw no conflict between the two acts and warned: “At a time when the exercise of the federal power is being rapidly expanded through Congressional action, it is difficult to overstate the importance of safeguarding against such diminution of state power by vague inferences as to what Congress might have intended if it had considered the matter or by reference to our own conceptions of a policy which Congress has not expressed and which is not plainly to be inferred from the legislation which it has enacted. ... Little aid can be derived from the vague and illusory but often repeated formula that Congress by occupying the field' has excluded from it all state legislation. Every Act of Congress occupies some field, but we must know the boundaries of that field before we can say that it has precluded a state from the exercise of any power reserved to it by the Constitution.".
This last official act is wholly reminiscent of his 1926 dissent and exemplifies the unchangeableness that was McReynolds.
His most famous dissent, one of the most dramatic ever delivered from the bench of the Supreme Court, was his dissent from the decision of the Court in the Gold Clause Cases. He was joined in it by Justices Van Devanter, Sutherland, and Butler. He completely departed from his written opinion and went to the country with an extemporaneous denunciation of repudiation of contracts and devaluation of the currency which electrified his auditors, sympathetic and unsympathetic alike. No stenographic transcript of what he said was taken. His remarks were quoted only fragmentarily, in the press. It was feared that they would be lost to posterity. Justice McReynolds himself prepared a revision of his remarks, which was published by the Wall Street Journal as the most authentic version. Many who heard the utterance will remember passages that do not appear in that version and will remember differently many that do appear. He has often been quoted as saying, “The Constitution is gone." It is believed the expression he used was, “The Constitution, as we have known it, is gone.”
Among the stronger expressions contained in Justice McReynolds' own revision are the following:
"Mr. Justice Van Devanter, Mr. Justice Sutherland, Mr. Justice Butler, and I do not accept the conclusions announced by the court. The record reveals clear purpose to bring about confiscation of private rights and repudiation of national obligations. To us, these things are abhorrent. We cannot believe the wise men who framed the Constitution intended to authorize them. On the contrary, adequate words of inhibition are there.
"First, the President is granted power to depreciate the dollar. He fixed sixty cents. Next, attempt is made to destroy private obligations by 'A Statute to Regulate the Currency of the United States.' Also to destroy Government obligations. The same language the same section-covers both. Having put out five hundred million Gold Clause bonds in May, Congress declares in June that these promises so to pay in gold are illegal and contrary to existing public policy, although this had been consistently observed for many years and had been approved by the courts.
“After this effort to destroy the gold clause, the dollar is depreciated to sixty cents. Prices are to be estimated in deflated dollars. Mortgages, bank deposits, insurance funds, everything that thrifty men have accumulated, is subject to this depreciation. And we are told there is no remedy.
"We venture to say that the Constitution gives no such arbitrary power. It was not there originally; it was not there yesterday; it is not properly there today.
"It is said that the National Government has made by these transactions $2,800,000,000 and that all gold hypothecated to the Treasury now may be used to discharge public obligations! If the dollar be depreciated to five cents or possibly one, then, through fraud, all governmental obligations could be discharged quite simply.
"Shame and humiliation are upon us now. Moral and financial chaos may confidently be expected.”
This fervid dissent accords with the view he himself had expressed many years before in another dissenting opinion that "an amorphous dummy, unspotted by human emotions" is not "a becoming receptacle for judicial power.”
So much discussion of his dissents should not cast doubt on his profound contribution to jurisprudence in his many majority opinions throughout his long period of service. His dissents became more and more numerous after 1933. But throughout his long judicial career he made such a continuous and constructive contribution to judicial decision, in so many fields of the law, that it would be impracticable in these resolutions to attempt a summarization. That contribution will ever stand as vitally significant in the history of the period, of the Court and of its jurisprudence.
James Clark McReynolds was born in Elkton, Kentucky, on February 3, 1862, of Scotch-Irish descent, the son of Dr. John O. and Ellen (Reeves) McReynolds. His father was determined that he should be a professional man, a doctor or a lawyer, and sent him to Vanderbilt University, where he received the degree of Bachelor of Science in 1882, completing a four-year course in three years. He took first honors in his class, received the Founder's Gold Medal, and was elected valedictorian by his classmates.