Joseph McKenna was an American politician who served in all three branches of the U.S. federal government, as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, as U.S. Attorney General and as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. He is one of seventeen members of the House of Representatives who subsequently served on the Supreme Court (including two Chief Justices).
Joseph McKenna was born on August 10, 1845, or perhaps, according to a baptismal record, August 14. His father, John McKenna, an Irish baker, had migrated to Philadelphia three years earlier. There he met and married Joseph’s mother, Mary Ann Johnson, who had herself emigrated from England only a few years previously. The young couple struggled to operate a bakery in the harsh economic circumstances in which they found themselves in mid-19th-century Philadelphia.
John McKenna died three years after the family arrived in California, and two of tire family’s children would soon follow. By age 15, Joseph McKenna found himself the man of the family, and while the Civil War raged far away from California, he struggled with his mother to keep their bakery going. On the side he started to study law; he was eventually able to pass the California bar in 1865.
Within six months of being admitted to practice law in California, McKenna won election to the position of Solano County district attorney. It was the first step in a political career that would predominantly occupy McKenna’s life over the next 25 years. At the threshold of that career, he cast his lot with the newly created Republican party. McKenna served as district attorney for four years altogether before returning to private life and the practice of law. After leaving his public post, he married Amanda Frances Bornemann. The union would last more than 50 years and produce four children who survived to adulthood.
In the mid-1870s McKenna returned to political life. He won a seat in the California legislature in 1875 and promptly set his sights on winning election to the U.S. Congress. But this political prize eluded him for a time. McKenna won the Republican nomination from California’s third congressional district in 1876, but he lost in the general election to the Democratic incumbent, John King Luttrell. When Luttrell retired at the end of the term, McKenna garnered the Republican nomination again and this time lost the general election to the Democratic candidate C. P. Berry by a mere 189 votes in 1878. Six years later he renewed his quest for a seat in Congress. This time, after a spirited battle for the Republican nomination, McKenna emerged victorious from his party’s primary and easily won the general election. In 1885 he took his seat as a Republican congressman from California. Once in Congress, McKenna had no difficulty remaining there. He became a fierce advocate for California’s economic interests, especially its railroad interests. Along the way he cemented close relationships with Leland Stanford, one-time governor of California who would become a U.S. senator and—even more important—William McKinley of Ohio, with whom McKenna served on the House Ways and Means Committee.
Toward the end of his long career on the Court, McKenna reverted to the conservativism of his younger days, at least until advancing old age began to rob him of his mental faculties. By the time William Howard Taft became chief justice of the Court in 1921, McKenna’s health had begun to fail and his mind and temperament soon followed a declining path. His wife of more than 50 years died in 1924, and that year Chief Justice Taft— despairing of McKenna’s erratic behavior and decisions—secured the agreement of the other justices on the Court not to let McKenna’s vote be decisive in any case. At the same time, Taft pressured McKenna to step down from the Court. Finally on January 5, 1925, the aged Californian did so. He died in Washington, D.C., almost two years later, on November 21, 1926.
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.
Member California House of Representatives, 1875-1876. Member 49th to 52d Congresses (1885-1892), 2d California District.
McKenna himself was unsure enough of his judicial ability that he attended courses briefly at Columbia University Law School before taking his seat on the Court. But eventually he made a place for himself as a competent jurist with a plain and simple writing style. Curiously, in light of his previous political partisanship on behalf of railroad interests, McKenna carved a reputation as a moderate rather than a conservative ideologue.
Married Amanda F. Borneman, June 10, 1869 (died 1924).