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John McKinley served on the U.S. Supreme Court as an associate justice from 1837 to 1852. During the 1820s, McKinley built his career in the Alabama legislature. He later served in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. At a time when westward expansion brought federal and state governments into conflict over the use of land, McKinley was a strong advocate of States' Rights and affordable land for settlers. In 1837, President Martin Van Buren appointed McKinley to the Court, where McKinley sat for 15 years. McKinley complained endlessly about the great deal of travel required by Supreme Court justices at that time. He produced only 20 opinions and two concurrences during his tenure, and he is largely remembered for his dissent on behalf of states' rights in Bank of Augusta v. Earle, 38 U.S. (13 Pet.) 519, 10 L. Ed. 274 (1839).
Born in Culpeper County, Virginia, on May 1, 1780, McKinley studied law in Kentucky and passed the bar examination in 1800. While practicing law in Kentucky and later Alabama over the next 20 years, McKinley developed an interest in politics. He won the first of his several elections to the state legislature in 1820. Later, by shrewdly changing political allegiances from presidential candidate Henry Clay to the more popular Andrew Jackson, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1826. His chief concern in office was land legislation. As settlers pushed westward, McKinley favored the interests of small land buyers over those of big speculators. He also argued for the primacy of state control over land within state borders, taking the traditional states'-rights view that denied the validity of federal authority. As his political fortunes rose and fell, McKinley lost a bid for re-election to the Senate in 1830 and then alternated between serving terms in the Alabama legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives.In 1837, McKinley had returned to the Alabama legislature as a representative when Congress increased the number of seats on the U.S. Supreme Court from seven to nine. President Van Buren first offered one of the seats to another Alabama lawmaker, william smith, who declined. McKinley accepted, but not without reservation. He was chiefly bothered by the need to travel upwards of 5,000 miles every year.
During McKinley's time, justices had responsibility not only over the Court itself, but also over the federal circuit courts, which required them to travel in a practice known as circuit riding. In charge of the largest circuit, the Ninth, McKinley loathed this obligation. Twice, in 1838 and 1842, McKinley asked Congress to absolve him of the responsibility, which he claimed exposed him to undue personal expense and the risk of yellow fever. Embittered by lack of sympathy for his complaints, he sometimes neglected to visit all of the courts in his circuit, a failure that brought him criticism.
In 1839, McKinley wrote his most notable opinion, in the case of Bank of Augusta v. Earle. Rooted in a state banking dispute, the case concerned the constitutional limitations of state power to regulate business—specifically, how far a state could go in excluding a corporation from doing business within its borders. On the circuit court, McKinley ruled that states have broad powers, and the opinion provoked outrage from corporations, attorneys, and even McKinley's colleague, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story. When the case reached the high court, the 8-to-1 majority took a far more moderate view. In dissent, McKinley adhered to his position: A state could properly limit business activity to corporations that were chartered in it, and it should be free to reject the business of any outside corporation. "The natural society of nations cannot subsist, if the rights which each has received from nature are not respected."
As his health deteriorated in his later years, McKinley did less circuit riding, and after 1845 he played a very limited role in the Court's affairs. He remained on the Court until his death in Louisville, Kentucky, on July 19, 1852.
Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. 1969. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789–1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions. New York: Chelsea House.