The Taciturn Judge

It’s very easy to slip into black-or-white thinking, but it nearly always leads to inaccurate conclusions. For instance, if you think someone is a good person, you’re more likely to overlook their fault and shrug off their misdeeds. On the other hand, if you think someone is a bad person, the good they do, their talents, their achievements are all easy to brush aside or to attribute to something else.

I came across James C. McReynolds, who became a Supreme Court Justice in 1914. (It was a case of mistaken identity, I was looking for a different Judge McReynolds.) However, this judge was interesting in his own right. He would definitely be cancelled today, but he’s worth a second look.

McReynolds birthplace in Elkton, KY


James Clark McReynolds was born in Elkton, Kentucky. Nothing about his circumstances predicted his meteoric rise in the legal field nor the brilliantly successful future ahead of him. His wonderful future came packaged in the unlikely form of one of the worst presidents in US history: Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson made McReynolds the US Attorney General and in 1914, he became an associate justice on the Supreme Court. He stayed on the court until 1941.

Despite his success, few people had kind words for McReynolds. He was a peculiar man who held puritanical beliefs and was horribly rude to others. Chief Justice William Howard Taft conceded that McReynolds was “able” but also “selfish to the last degree…fuller of prejudice than any man I have ever known…one who delights in making others uncomfortable.”

McReynolds in 1913


McReynolds had a seemingly infinite number of prejudices, a few of which included smokers, Jews, blacks, effeminate men who wore wristwatches, vulgar women who wore red nail polish, the New Deal, and a very pointed dislike of Germans. He didn’t bother to disguise it. McReynolds would leave the bench if a female attorney was presenting a case, and turned his chair backwards when a black attorney was arguing a case.

McReynolds wasn’t satisfied with just disliking people; he often tried to force down his ideas on others. In some instances, he wouldn’t allow people to smoke in his presence, and he often tried to get people booted from his country club, until the exasperated manager informed him that if he wasn’t a Supreme Court justice, he would have been kicked out long ago. He certainly was the subject of many complaints. McReynolds never married, and no one was surprised about that.

As I sit here writing this, I have a feeling that, had we ever met in person, the judge would not form a high opinion of me. (Just a few days ago, I got my nails done, and they asked me what color I wanted. “I’d like something that looks tacky and cheap,” I told them.)

OPI’s new Voilá Vulgar color


I suspect I might have found Mr. McReynolds to be tiresome as well, but there was more to the judge. He was on the court at the same time as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who, like the other justices, had taken a dislike to McReynolds, saying he “had all the irrational impulses of a savage.”

I say all of this first because that is how Justice McReynolds presented himself to the world. There are people who do that kind of thing–present a very rough exterior–and then you get to know them, and discover they really aren’t like that.

Holmes later discovered that McReynolds wasn’t really what he pretended to be. When his (Holmes) wife passed away, McReynolds unexpectedly appeared at her funeral, and he cried while he was there.

Later, Holmes wrote that the taciturn justice was “a man of feeling and of more secret kindliness than he would get credit for.”

And it was true: McReynolds could be unexpectedly kind, even to the most wretched of humans, but he seemed to do so when there was the least opportunity of its being observed by others. Once he was riding the bus, and a drunk man got on board and immediately fell over into the aisle. Knowing what we do of McReynolds, you would expect him to set up an outcry and demand the drunk guy be put off the bus, but he didn’t. He helped pick the guy up and sat next to him until his stop was reached. Then he asked the conductor to take good care of him.

McReynolds loved children. One of the most startling things about him was that he adopted 33 orphans who were victims of the German bombing of London in 1940. Even his boorish behavior on the bench was entirely different when the senior justices were away. When McReynolds presided at the Supreme Court, no one was more gracious and thoughtful to male and female attorneys of any race. McReynolds was also very generous, giving freely to charities of all kinds throughout his life, especially those dedicated to the welfare of children, and giving them nearly everything upon his death.

James McReynolds seemed determined to conceal his best qualities though. Back then, most people muttered about him and disliked him, but a few like Justice Holmes, discovered the truth and gave him a lot more grace.

We aren’t known for giving anyone grace these days. But maybe our world would be a little better for some graciousness.

The justice, after many years on the Supreme Court


5 thoughts on “The Taciturn Judge

  1. If only people would abide by the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them fo unto you. Black, white, brown , or yellow treated as equals.


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