Iconic Photos

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Supreme Court Group Photo

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Above, the Supreme Court in 1921: (sitting l. to r.) William Day; Jospeh McKenna; Chief Justice William Howard Taft; Oliver Wendell Holmes; William Van Devanter. (standing l. to r.) Brandeis, Mahlon Pitney, McReynolds, and John Hessin Clarke.

In 1924, Pitney’s retirement somehow led to Brandeis and McReynolds being reassigned next to each other when seniority seating for photographs was introduced. That year, the annual photograph of the Justices of the Supreme Court had to be canceled when Justice McReynolds refused to be photographed next to the Court’s first Jewish Justice, Louis Brandeis. The Supreme Court’s custom of sitting for a new portrait whenever it acquires a new member began in 1861, has been broken only once before, in 1891, when Justice Joseph P. Bradley was mortally ill.

Reactionary James McReynolds — only appointed because President Wilson wanted to get rid of his obnoxious Attorney General– was an anti-Semite, racist and misogynist and perhaps the court’s crankiest justice. He held three successive occupants of the court’s Jewish seat (Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, Felix Frankfurter) in contempt, and refused to speak to them or participate in any formal supreme court duties having to do with any of them. During Cardozo’s swearing-in, McReynolds pointedly read a newspaper. He would turn his chair around 180 degrees whenever a black attorney argued a case before the Supreme Court. He would not accept “Jews, drinkers, blacks, women, smokers, married or engaged individuals as law clerks.” His attitudes towards the other white justices were no better. A continual grouch, McReynolds would always complain that the court is doing something that he regards as undignified; he hated wristwatches, and cigarettes and would regularly admonish other justices for wearing wristwatches and smoking. He argued with all the patrons at the Chevy Chase golf club — an establishment favored by Washington elite — and two fellow justices transferred from the club when they couldn’t stand McReynolds anymore.

The earliest photographers of the Supreme Court were the Washington establishment’s go-to photographers like Matthew Brady. For the better part of its history, the photos were taken by “the semiofficial photographers of official Washington” Harris & Ewing in their signature gray stone building on Washington’s F Street. In recent years, the Supreme Court has official staff photographers.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 11, 2010 at 9:33 pm

6 Responses

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  1. The Supreme Court tends to order themselves with the Chief in the primary position, and then in decreasing order of seniority. So Pitney was probably between Brandeis and McReynolds in seniority, and his retirement probably put the two together for photos and the like.

    As a relevant side note, Breyer said he was thrilled in 2005 when Alito was appointed, because he would no longer be the most junior justice, and, after 11 years, someone else would have to answer the door when it was knocked.


    April 11, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    • that is the logical explanation, but Pitney (appointed by Taft himself!) was more senior than both Brandeis and McReynolds (consecutive appointments by Wilson).


      April 11, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    • Actually, it was in late 1922, upon the retirement of Justice William Day, that, had there been a photo taken, Justices Brandeis and McReynolds would’ve sat next to each other, although it would’ve been an eight-member Court at that time. Not until the joining, the following February, of Justice Edward Sanford, was there a full Court again. Also, after Justice Pitney retired in December, 1922, Justices Brandeis and McReynolds would’ve no longer sat next to each other. (If a photo been taken upon Day’s retirement, standing, from left to right, would’ve been Justices Sutherland, McReynolds, Brandeis; sitting, from left to right, would’ve been Justices Van Devanter, McKenna, Taft, Holmes, Pitney.)

      michael hartman

      May 21, 2015 at 12:54 am

    • Interestingly, the period between the joining of Chief Justice Taft in August, 1921 and the resignation of Justice Clarke in September, 1922 was the only time in Court history in which there were three Justices from Ohio! In addition to Clarke and Taft, Justice Day was from the Buckeye State.

      michael hartman

      November 11, 2015 at 3:11 am

    • Justice William Day retired in November, 1922, so Justices Brandeis and McReynolds would’ve only sat next to each other for about a month (November-December, 1922).

      michael hartman

      December 16, 2015 at 1:13 am

  2. In a way, the first Taft Court was the personnel beginning in 1912, upon the joining of Justice Pitney, since it was the only lineup that included all six appointments. (The next departure from the Court was that of the Taft-appointed Justice Lurton in 1914.) On another note, one wonders how different history would’ve been had Taft accepted President Roosevelt’s offer of a seat on the Court in 1903 for the Shiras vacancy. Also, as President, in all six of his Court appointments, Taft didn’t regard geography as a significant factor. In fact, geography didn’t count at all in his appointments, the first President to think this way. For his first vacancy (the Peckham vacancy), he substituted Tennessee for New York; for the second (the Brewer vacancy), New York for Kansas; for the third (the Fuller vacancy), Louisiana for Illinois; for the fourth (the White vacancy), Wyoming for Louisiana; for the fifth (the Moody vacancy), Georgia for Massachusetts; and for the sixth (the Harlan vacancy), New Jersey for Kentucky. Going back to Taft’s Court offer in 1903, there was the possibility that he and William Day would’ve served a long time together on the Court, and Taft might’ve even served with Lurton as well (Day and Lurton were both long-time friends of Taft’s).

    michael hartman

    April 10, 2016 at 11:15 pm

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