Monday, July 5, 2010

Justice McReynolds

There isn't a lot of news this weekend concerning local zoning controversies or new case decisions. Instead, I thought we might discuss just briefly a local man who was appointed to the United States Supreme Court and who voted against the zoning ordinance in the landmark zoning case known as Euclid v. Ambler Realty Company, 272 US 365 (1926). As all attorneys who work in the land use area know, the Supreme Court held that "If the validity of the legislative classification for zoning purposes be fairly debatable, the legislative judgment must be allowed to control," and the zoning ordinance was upheld by the majority of the court.

The majority opinion was written by Justice Sutherland, and he was joined by Chief Justice Taft, and Justices Holmes, Stone, Brandeis, and Sanford. Historically, Justice Sutherland evidently had a difficult time resolving his views about comprehensive zoning ordinances such as the one adopted by the Village of Euclid, and there was a second argument which ultimately led to Sutherland breaking with the more conservative members of the court and voting in favor of zoning.

In dissent were Justices Van DeVanter, McReynolds and Butler, although no written reasons were given by the dissenters. Most interestingly for Tennesseans is the presence on the court at this time of Justice McReynolds. McReynolds was born in Kentucky but moved to Tennessee and graduated from Vanderbilt University first in his class. He attended the University of Virginia Law school and after a brief stint in Washington, returned to Nashville to practice law. In 1900, he became a professor of law at Vanderbilt where he worked with Horace Lurton who himself would later become an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court court.

McReynolds was appointed as an Assistant Attorney General in Teddy Roosevelt's administration and he wound up in New York City practicing law around 1910. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson appointed him to the US Supreme Court. He served 26 years on the bench and was generally viewed as both pro-business and extremely conservative. McReynolds also had a reputation of having an abrasive personality and a volatile temper. He did not get along with a number of his colleagues on the bench, in particular Justice Brandeis (usually ascribed to anti-Semitism) and was a bitter enemy of FDR and the New Deal. That alone probably would explain his dissent on the zoning case.

McReynolds retired from the court in 1941, after the court packing plan sponsored by FDR was defeated. In fact, the four major conservative votes on the court retired shortly after that plan died in Congress, perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall that there was about to be a sea change in the approach of the court towards economic and social legislation. Some observers maintain that McReynolds held on longer than the others out of sheer spite for the New Deal and FDR. McReynolds died six years later in Washington DC, at the age of 84.

After his death, a number of his colleagues on the bench were surprised to learn that during the Second World War, McReynolds had supported 33 young refugee children financially and had been one of the founding contributors to the Save the Children organization. He left most of his estate (he was a lifelong bachelor) to the Children's Hospital in Washington, DC, and to the Salvation Army.

The official court portrait and a photo of the Justice may be found here. A longer biography of the Justice may be found here.

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