The United States Supreme Court is the third branch of the federal government and historically the most mysterious to the typical citizen. Most can’t name more than a few of the nine justices and fewer truly understand how important they are to their lives. Every so often a decision is handed down that is so momentous only someone stuck in a cave can go unaware of its significance.
The Court attracts the best and the brightest of legal minds like a Oliver Wendell Holmes, William O. Douglas and Felix Frankfurther. There have been 112 men and women appointed to the highest court in the land, and once you get past the best and brightest you have the pretty good, just okay, and the staggeringly mediocre.
Then there are the special cases. The justices that are downright terrible and grossly incompetent.
Cue up Uncle Clarence Thomas. But before we got to #106, we had a real winner in Number 66, James Clark McReynolds.
Even Thomas might be floored by how foul a piece of crap McReynolds was. He authored no major decisions and is best known for being such an unlikeable bastard when he died not one of his colleagues on the Court bothered attending his funeral.
Appointed by President Woodrow Wilson McReynolds served on the Court for 26 years and while he worked with three other conservative justices to foil and block many of Roosevelt’s New Deal, he was a raging douche who went out of his way to be nasty, rude and bigoted even to his colleagues on the bench. He pointedly refused to speak to Justice John Clarke because he was “too liberal” or Louis Brandeis and Benjamin Cardozo because they were Jewish. He refused to pose for the annual Court picture with Brandeis posed next to him in seniority and would not sign opinions authored by Brandeis and would leave the justices conferences when he would speak.
When President Herbert Hoover was considering Cardozo, McReynolds and two other justices asked Hoover not “to afflict the Court with another Jew.” When Cardozo was nominated the rabid anti-Semite from Kentucky reportedly said, “Huh, it seems that the only way you can get on the Supreme Court these days is to be either the son of a criminal or a Jew, or both.”
McReynolds had plenty of contempt left over from hating Jews to letting Blacks know exactly what he thought of them. He hated having to serve with Jews on the Supreme Court, but he didn’t even try to mask his contempt for Blacks. The American Spectator revealed how intemperate the judicial temperament of McReynolds was provided an opportunity to express it.
Arrayed behind the raised bench, the nine Justices peer down from their lofty, high-backed leather chairs, their black robes distinct against crimson drapes trimmed with gold.
Rising to his feet to begin his presentation is attorney Charles Hamilton Houston. Houston is one of America’s more brilliant members of the bar. Educated at Amherst College, where he was the class valedictorian, he had gone on to graduate cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he served on the law review. Today, the historic courtroom is hushed, with all eyes on Houston as he begins to speak.
Suddenly, silently, without a word, there is movement from the bench.
Justice James Clark McReynolds swivels his chair, turning it around 180 degrees. And keeps it that way. There is a moment of stunned silence as the recognition dawns on McReynolds’s fellow Justices, headed by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. So too is there a jaw-dropping understanding in the rest of the ornate, historic chambers as everyone else realizes the import of what has just occurred. The Justice is now staring steadily at the curtains, the back of his tall chair quite deliberately, ostentatiously, and literally turned to Houston.
There was a reason.
Charles Hamilton Houston was not just one of America’s leading attorneys this November day in 1938. He was also a black man. And Mr. Justice McReynolds, a Tennessean, graduate of Vanderbilt and the University of Virginia Law School, a onetime law professor, a political progressive appointed in 1914 by the progressive hero Woodrow Wilson, is both a racist and a vehement anti-Semite.
McReynolds has no intention whatsoever of giving the black lawyer addressing the Court this day the slightest recognition. Why? Because James McReynolds — like the President who appointed him — judges people by race. He is, as is Wilson, a rabid white supremacist and a segregationist.
Indeed, when Chief Justice Hughes, a Republican appointed by President Herbert Hoover, later hands down the decision validating Houston’s argument and putting the first crack in Plessy by insisting on Gaines’s right to attend the school (which Gaines never did) McReynolds will write the dissent. True to the racial beliefs he shared with the President who appointed him, McReynolds insists that the “best interests” of Missourians are served by “separation of whites and Negroes in schools,” his racist values deciding his vote in one of the most important legal cases of the decade.
So too was McReynolds’s racism in play in Powell v. Alabama. This case involved nine young black men known to history as the “Scottsboro Boys.” Charged with the rape of two white women in 1931 Alabama, the defendants were provided with a lawyer only as the trial was literally about to begin. The trial lasted barely one day, at the end of which all but one of the young men were sentenced to death. The conviction was upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court. Now a civil rights cause receiving massive publicity across the nation, the case was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court, under the leadership of Chief Justice Hughes (Wilson’s opponent in the 1916 presidential election who campaigned on a platform pledging “the protection of every American citizen in all the rights secured to him by the Constitution”), ordered a new trial, siding with the black teenage defendant, “Ozie” Powell, and the Scottsboro Boys. The Court noted the “hostile” atmosphere that had prevailed in denying the defendants appropriate counsel, that blacks had been kept from the jury, and that the trial itself was neither fair nor impartial for racial reasons. In short, the Scottsboro Boys had been denied due process under the 14th Amendment. McReynolds dissented of course, tartly saying he did not see that a new trial was necessary.
Settling into the Supreme Court’s barber shop for a hair cut from the longtime black barber, a man named Gates, McReynolds decided to talk of Howard University, the famous black university in the District of Columbia. Said Justice McReynolds: “Gates, tell me, where is this nigger university in Washington, D.C.?” According to an account later provided by another Justice: “Gates removed the white cloth from McReynolds, walked around and faced him, and said in a very calm and dignified manner, ‘Mr. Justice, I am shocked that any Justice would call a Negro a nigger. There is a Negro college in Washington, D.C. Its name is Howard University and we are very proud of it.'”
James McReynolds would have despised serving on the Court with the likes of Clarence Thomas, but even a dead old segregationist would approve of how relentlessly Thomas has worked to be as unjust as possible to Blacks.
As hostile as McReynolds was to the Scottsboro Boys, Thomas has been similarly hostile to Black prisoners whose cases reach the Supreme Court as the cases of Juan Smith and John Thompson will demonstrate in the last installment.
- How we got a bad Supreme Court (and how to make it better) (themoderatevoice.com)
- Discord at Supreme Court is deep, and personal (cbsnews.com)