JOSEPH McKENNA, lawyer, cabinet officer, jurist, and associate justice of the United States Supreme court, is a native of Pennsylvania, though his chief distinctions have been won as a citizen of California. Of mixed Irish and English ancestry he was born in Philadelphia, August 10, 1843, a son of John and Mary McKenna. He was educated in the local schools, and at St. Joseph's college, Philadelphia, until he reached his eleventh year, when his parents removed to California, and located at Benicia, Solano county. Here his education was continued in the public schools and at Benicia collegiate institute, from which latter he was graduated in law, mainly under the instructorship of Professor Abbott, in 1865, and was at once admitted to the bar.
Early in his professional career Mr. McKenna was twice elected district attorney of Solano county, being inducted into office in March, 1866. Upon being elected he moved to Fairfield, the county seat, and subsequently to Suisun, in the same county, where he continued his practice, and was elected to the lower house of the California legislature, serving throughout the sessions of 1875 and 1876. While a member of this body he delivered a speech that attracted much attention on the proposal to create a State Board of Railroad Commissioners. This effort gave him more than local prominence, and in the next year he received the Republican nomination for congress, from the third congressional district, but was defeated. His nomination in 1878 met with another defeat, and it was not until his third attempt, in 1884, that his congressional aspirations were successful. He served with eminent success in the forty-ninth, fiftieth, fifty-first and fifty-second Congresses, and was the only member during that period, west of the Rocky Mountains, to receive a place on the committee of Ways and Means. Here began his association with the late President McKinley, then chairman of that important committee, and the mutual friendship thus begun continued unabated until the untimely death of President McKinley.
In 1893 Mr. McKenna was appointed by President Harrison United States circuit judge, for the ninth Pacific Coast circuit, to succeed Lorenzo Sawyer. This necessitated his resignation from congress. He continued in this judicial capacity for four years, when he entered President McKinley’s cabinet March, 1897, as attorney-general of the United States, succeeding Honorable Judson Harmon of Ohio. A vacancy occurred in the United States Supreme court within the following year, by the retirement of Mr. Justice Stephen J. Field of California, and January 21, 1898, President McKinley designated Mr. McKenna as associate justice of that tribunal. He was unanimously confirmed by the senate, and took his seat January 26th, following. Since that time his services and his career have become a part of the annals of that court.
The opinions pronounced by Justice McKenna, as an appellate judge, are to be found in the Federal reports beginning about volume forty-nine. Upon examination they show succinctness of style, breadth of argument and precision of comment that will prompt any layman who reads them, to pronounce them both good common sense and good common law. Many cases arose within his circuit requiring tact as well as skill in construing, applying and expounding international law — especially cases respecting the treatment of the Chinese immigrants and their status here. He met these issues in a truly judicial spirit, evincing at the same time a mastery in the interpretation of international conventions, and a delicacy in dealing with legal complications, that have since been emphasized in larger degree.
Although his career as attorney-general was short, it was nevertheless characterized by ability and a sagacious insight into the manifold duties of the office. Perhaps his most distinctive work in this position was an opinion rendered on section twenty-two of the Dingley Tariff act, and his part in the settlement of the Union Pacific Railroad controversy.
When appointed to the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, he was a man of ripe attainments and of unusually varied legal and judicial experience. His judicial opinions amply sustain the wisdom of his appointment. They exhibit breadth of judgment, freedom from prejudice, legal learning, and a judicious application of the principles of public ethics.
Justice McKenna was married in San Francisco, June 10, 1869, to Amanda, daughter of F. G. Borneman. They have one son and three daughters.