Jan. 9, 2003
Vol. 22 No. 7

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    New Hutchinson book opens window on FDR’s New Deal, opposition it faced in Court

    By Peter Schuler
    News Office

    Supreme Court historian Dennis Hutchinson and his colleague David Garrow have unearthed the neglected memoir of a graduate of the College (Ph.B., ’30), whose story unfolds during his clerkship for a now-obscure Supreme Court justice whose ideologies clashed with those of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    The University of Chicago Press recently released The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox: A Year in the Life of a Supreme Court Clerk in FDR’s Washington, in which Hutchinson and Garrow, a professor at the Emory University School of Law, skillfully edited the quotidian but richly detailed account of Knox’s difficult year as Justice James McReynolds’ law clerk. The book has earned enthusiastic praise from critics as both fascinating history and an extremely good read.

    Hutchinson, Senior Lecturer in the Law School and the William Rainey Harper Professor in the College, is a highly respected historian of the Supreme Court and the author of The Man Who Once Was Whizzer White, the definitive biography of the late Justice Byron R. White.

    Hutchinson described Knox as a sad figure who spent much of his energy in fawning and largely fruitless pursuit of powerful patrons. “The position of clerk did not carry the prestige or earmark for success that it enjoys today,” Hutchinson explained. “Supreme Court clerks in that era were typically used as permanent stenographers and legal secretaries.

    “The value of Knox’s writing lies in what it reveals about the operation of the Supreme Court and its depiction of a social culture now long gone–Washington, D.C. in the interwar years,” Hutchinson said. “Most of the justices worked in home studies equipped with full law libraries in an intensely personal working environment, and Knox makes that lost world vivid.”

    Knox evokes the essentially Southern character of the capital at that time and the intricate customs of Washington society. The complex interactions between McReynolds, his two black servants, and Knox offer a compelling study of loyalty, arrogance and hypocrisy.

    The year 1937 in Washington was politically charged, and Knox’s very personal account is set against the dramatic backdrop of Roosevelt’s New Deal and his constant battles with a recalcitrant Supreme Court that came to a head in Roosevelt’s famously disastrous “court packing” scheme.

    The President had proposed a reorganization of the judiciary that would have allowed him to appoint a new Supreme Court justice whenever an incumbent judge reached 70 and failed to retire. A maximum of six judges could have been named in this manner. The measure was defeated after intense Congressional opposition.

    “Justice McReynolds was one of the prime targets of the plan,” Hutchinson said. “One of the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ whose hostility to the New Deal and state economic regulation was implacable and sometimes acidly declared, McReynolds was a notoriously disagreeable, bigoted and imperious personality and an unreconstructed son of the Old South.” He had first come to Washington as a trustbuster for President Theodore Roosevelt and later was President Wilson’s attorney general until his appointment to the Court in 1924.

    Knox’s clerkship ended when McReynolds fired him for taking time off to sit for the Washington, D.C. bar examination, which Knox failed. The remainder of his life was a succession of personal and professional disappointments.

    For Knox, who styled himself a latter-day Samuel Pepys (a 17th-century diarist), the transformation of his diary into a memoir became an obsession. He died at 90, bitter, broke and alone, in the house in Oak Park, Ill., in which he had grown up, with his writings randomly scattered among law libraries and most of his treasured photos and autographed letters gone.