John McKinley: Louisville's Lost Supreme Court Justice


Two associate justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are buried in the city of Louisville. One, Louis D. Brandeis, is considered to be one of the finest jurists to ever serve on the Court, writing opinions that are widely considered landmarks in the development of the right to privacy and the freedom of speech. He is the namesake of both Brandeis University and, more importantly, the Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville, where he is buried in the school's portico.

And then there is John McKinley. In fifteen years on the Court, he wrote 21 opinions. True, he was assigned to ride the Southern Circuit, a brutal task in the years from 1837 to his death in 1852, but in his later years he neglected this task, avoiding his responsibility to visit Arkansas his whole time on the court. (Some might argue that this was an understandable omission). He was so obscure that when he died in Louisville on July 19, 1852, the New York Times gave him a one-line obituary. He may have been the victim of unfortunate timing; another man with Kentucky connections died that day, Henry Clay. McKinley’s obscurity has only grown; many biographies have his death place listed wrongly as Lexington.

McKinley is not usually counted among Kentucky’s Supreme Court justices, but the state has a rather strong claim to him (assuming it wished to claim him). He was born (like Clay) in Virginia, but was brought to Lexington, Kentucky, in his youth. He was called to the bar in Frankfort and practiced there and in Louisville, before trying his fortunes in Alabama in 1821. He served that state in Congress and was considered an Alabaman when President Martin Van Buren appointed him to the Supreme Court. However, he soon decided that Louisville was an excellent home base for his circuit court duties, and relocated here in 1842. The 1850 census lists him and his family well ensconced in the city.

Related by birth to one leading Kentucky family, the Logans, he became connected to others by the marriage of his daughters. (One set of in-laws, the Churchills, dabbled in horse racing and built a race track of moderate fame).

He was buried in a prominent place in Cave Hill Cemetery, Louisville’s oldest and most beautiful burial place; his memorial is dignified but relatively modest. The cemetery does not mention McKinley among its list of famous residents, which includes John Keats’ brother George and Col. Harlan Sanders.