McKenna, Joseph Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The sole Court appointee of President William McKinley, McKenna was the last justice from the Gilded Age and is best remembered for a twenty-six-year record of ambivalence as to the question of government regulation of the economy.

Born into an immigrant Irish family in Philadelphia, McKenna moved to Benecia, California, at the age of twelve. Raised as a Catholic,Roman Catholics;McKinley, William[mackinley, williamRoman Catholics;on the Court[court] he attended parochial schools and at one point considered entering the priesthood. Ultimately deciding instead to pursue a career in law, McKenna graduated from the law department of Benecia Collegiate Institute in 1865. Admitted to the bar that same year, he later relocated to Fairfield in Solano County where he served as district attorney from 1866 to 1870.McKinley, William[MacKinley, William];nominations to the Court]

Joseph McKenna

(Library of Congress)

After serving as a California state representative in 1875 and 1876, McKenna made two unsuccessful runs for Congress before securing election in 1884. Becoming a political prot g of powerful Republican senator and railroad magnate Leland Stanford, McKenna resigned from Congress in March of 1892 when Stanford secured his appointment to the U.S. Circuit Court by President Benjamin Harrison.

Serving on the Ninth Judicial Circuit for the next five years, McKenna resigned on March 7, 1897, to become attorney general in the cabinet of President William McKinley. Shortly after the death of Associate Justice Stephen J. Field, a Californian, in early 1898, McKinley appointed McKenna to the Supreme Court largely to maintain representation of the West Coast. McKenna’s tenure spanned the entire Progressive Era and continued into the 1920’s. During this time, the Court’s primary focus was on the issue of government regulation of the economy. Of his 633 written opinions, the two most notable were the cases of Hipolite Egg Co. v. United States[case]Hipolite Egg Co. v. United States[Hipolite Egg Co. v. United States] (1911) and Hoke v. United States[case]Hoke v. United States[Hoke v. United States] (1913). Commerce, regulation of

In Hipolite, McKenna upheld the constitutionality of the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) and the government’s authority to regulate food sanitation standards. Similarly, in Hoke, McKenna upheld the legality of the Mann Act (1910) and the government’s power to prevent the transportation of women beyond state lines for immoral purposes. McKenna registered a dissent in Hammer v. Dagenhart[case]Hammer v. Dagenhart[Hammer v. Dagenhart] (1918), in which the Court’s five-person majority voted to negate a federal statue barring the interstate transportation of goods produced by child labor. McKenna also joined in the dissent in Adair v. United States[case]Adair v. United States[Adair v. United States] (1908), in which the Court denied the power of the federal government to outlaw the imposition of antiunion “yellow dog” contracts in interstate commerce.

On the other hand, McKenna voted to deny the states similar powers of regulation. Similarly, in the cases of Lochner v. New York[case]Lochner v. New York[Lochner v. New York] (1905) and Adkins v. Children’s Hospital[case]Adkins v. Children’s Hospital[Adkins v. Children’s Hospital] (1923), he voted to deny both state and federal government the power to enact minimum-wage or maximum-hour workday legislation.

At the time of Adkins, McKenna was suffering a steady decline in his mental resources. Gently eased off the bench two years later, he died at the age of eighty-three.

Further Reading
  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Ely, James W., Jr. The Fuller Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • McDevitt, Brother Matthew. Joseph McKenna: Associate Justice of the United States. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1946.
  • Renstrom, Peter G. The Taft Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Semanche, John E. Charting the Future: The Supreme Court Responds to a Changing Society, 1890-1920. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.
  • Shoemaker, Rebecca S. The White Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.

Adair v. United States

Adkins v. Children’s Hospital


Commerce, regulation of

Contract, freedom of

Hammer v. Dagenhart

Categories: History