The political connections McKenna forged during four congressional terms ultimately made him an attractive candidate for a more substantial political appointment. In 1892, when Republican President Benjamin Harrison had to fill a vacant seat on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covered
California, Leland Stanford—now a U.S. senator from California—was quick to suggest that the president appoint Joseph McKenna to the court. When President Harrison accepted this advice, however, and named McKenna to the Ninth Circuit, not everyone was pleased. More than a few critics complained that McKenna was nothing more than a political hack, lacking in judicial or even significant legal experience and likely to show favoritism toward railroad interests.
In five years on the Court of Appeals, McKenna avoided the land of overt favoritism for the railroads that others had prognosticated, but his generally weak educational background and lack of significant legal experience combined to make his service on the court quite lackluster. Nevertheless, when McKenna’s old friend from congressional days, William McKinley, returned to Washington as president of the United States, McKenna’s name was prominent among those expected to feature in the new administration. Though it was widely rumored that he might assume a seat in the president’s cabinet as secretary of the interior, he and McKinley doubted whether McKenna’s Catholicism would serve him well in a post with significant oversight of Native American education, generally in the hands of Protestant missionaries at that time. McKinley found a place for the Californian instead as attorney general of the United States, but this appointment proved to be the shortest in McKenna’s political career. He took office as attorney general in March 1897, and the following December, Justice Stephen J. Field of California announced his retirement from the Supreme Court. President McKinley immediately nominated McKenna to fill this vacancy on the Court; in spite of renewed criticism of McKenna’s aptitude as a jurist, he won confirmation from the Senate on January 21, 1898, and thus became the last justice to join the Court in the 19th century.
Party affiliation: Republican Party