Historians have contemplated ad nauseum who the worse President in U.S. history has been, but have given far less attention to identifying the worse Supreme Court justice. When I say the “worst” justice, I look at several criteria: (1) whether the justice was biased, partisan, or partial; (2) whether the justice authored or joined poor decisions; and (3) the legacy of the Justice’s tenure. By these criteria, Justice James McReynolds was the worst Supreme Court justice in our nation’s history.
First, Justice McReynolds was one of the most extreme partisans in the history of the court during his tenure from 1914 to 1941. Although appointed by a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, McReynolds stymied much of the New Deal. He voted to strike down the Social Security Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Federal Farm Bankruptcy Act, the Railroad Act, and the Coal Mining Act.
Second, McReynolds was outwardly racist and anti-Semitic. In 1938, when an African American lawyer argued before the Court, Justice McReynolds turned his chair 180 degrees, so as not to face the lawyer. When Justice Brandeis was appointed to the Supreme Court, McReynolds refused to speak to him for three years, because Justice Brandeis was Jewish. Upon Brandeis’s retirement, in 1939, McReynolds refused to sign a letter to him that was signed by the other justices. When Justice Cardozo, who was also Jewish, was appointed to the Court, Justice McReynolds reportedly said “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 refused to speak to Justice Cardozo – ever. When a female would appear before the Court, Justice McReynolds allegedly remarked “I see the female is here again.”
Third, Justice McReynolds is remembered for opposing the New Deal and for being racist and anti-Semitic. It’s true that Justice McReynolds authored a couple of notable opinion concerning civil liberties, Meyers v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923), and Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510. But he struck down legislation passed by Congress to alleviate the Great Depression, and damaged the Court’s reputation through his bigotry, and will forever be remembered for having done so.
The U.S. has had plenty of other bad justices. Abe Fortas was forced to resign from the Court because of an ethical scandal. Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote the opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the separate but equal doctrine, and joined the majority opinion in Lochner v. New York, which struck down a law setting maximum hours for bakers, and served as the basis for a generating of decisions striking down progressive legislation. But Justice McReynolds was the nation’s worst Supreme Court justice.