Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

John McKinley and the Antebellum Supreme Court: Circuit Riding in the Old Southwest

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

John McKinley and the Antebellum Supreme Court: Circuit Riding in the Old Southwest

Article excerpt

John McKinley and the Antebellum Supreme Court: Circuit Riding in the Old Southwest. By Steven P. Brown. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012. Pp. [xiv], 313. $39.95, ISBN 978-0-8173-1771-3.)

Steven P. Brown has written the first full-length published biography of John McKinley (1780-1852), who served multiple terms in the Alabama state legislature and was elected both a U.S. senator and a representative before President Martin Van Buren appointed him an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1837. Brown is curious to understand how someone as politically powerful and well known as McKinley could have so quickly "disappeared from the public mind and memory" (p. 3). Any study of McKinley is complicated by a lack of his personal papers, which are not known to survive. Where possible, Brown uses the letters McKinley wrote to such notable contemporaries as Van Buren, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Henry Clay. Brown has also searched newspaper databases to track McKinley's whereabouts while riding circuit and to locate some of his legal opinions, which were never systematically gathered or printed.

Drawing on these sources, Brown challenges the long-standing view, mainly seen in studies of the Supreme Court, that dismisses McKinley's judicial tenure as insignificant or even irrelevant and reduces the jurist to, in Brown's words, only "a caricature ... a man scarcely capable of completing his judicial duties" (p. 2). Such assessments focus on McKinley's absences from the Court and the very few formal opinions he wrote: twenty majority decisions and three dissents in fifteen years. Brown argues persuasively that this output was far from unusual, with sixteen of the twenty-six justices who preceded McKinley writing twenty-one opinions or fewer. In addition, the concurring and dissenting opinions that are so common today "were generally discouraged" in McKinley's time (p. 124).

Brown also reminds readers that antebellum Supreme Court justices spent only two or three months each year deciding cases in Washington, D.C. The justices devoted more time to traveling the country to adjudicate cases in the federal circuit courts. Circuit duty proved particularly onerous for McKinley. …

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