Just 3 Alabamians have ever made it onto Supreme Court

Just 3 Alabamians have ever made it onto Supreme Court
L-R: Justices John McKinley, Campbell, and Hugo Black (Source: Alabama Department of Archives and History)

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - As the process of securing a new justice to the U.S. Supreme Court gets underway, we're taking a look back at Alabama's role in shaping the highest court in the nation.

Since it was established in 1789, only 113 people have ever sat on the nation's highest court. An open seat is a rare occurrence as justices are afforded a lifetime appointment and many remain until their deaths or until late in life before deciding to retire.

So how has Alabama impacted the court? Turns out, only three justices have ever hailed from 'The Heart of Dixie' though none ever achieved the position of chief justice.

The first Alabamian was John McKinley, appointed to the seat by President Martin Van Buren for a term that ran from 1838 to 1852, a span of 14 years.

McKinley previously served as a U.S. senator, then a state legislator, then a U.S. representative, and finally as a senator again from Alabama before being plucked from Congress to become a justice.

On the bench, McKinley wrote just 22 opinions, the most noteworthy being about interstate commerce in Bank of Augusta v. Earle. He was the lone dissenting justice in considering whether states could prohibit corporations in other states from doing business within their borders, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama. 

McKinley's death at age 72 ushered in the second Alabamian to the high court as the seat was filled by John Archibald Campbell. He was nominated by President Franklin Pierce and his tenure on the court ran from 1853 to 1861.

The most famous Supreme Court case involving Campbell came in 1857: Dred Scott v. Sandford. Campbell sided with the majority of the court in determining that slaves and their descendants were not citizens, could not sue in court, and that the federal government could not prohibit slavery.

Despite joining the majority in its opinion, Campbell, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, "felt so strongly about the issues involved in the case that he submitted a separate but concurring opinion."

Campbell's time on the bench ended in resignation as the Civil War broke out and Southern states began to secede. He took a position with the Confederate government as the assistant secretary of war.

After the war, Campbell, who was a prominent attorney of the day, argued multiple cases before the Supreme Court until retiring in 1886.

Decades passed before another Alabamian would find his way onto the court. The last to sit on the bench was Hugo Black, nominated by President Franklin Roosevelt. Black had the longest tenure of any of the three with his time on the high court spanning 34 years from 1937 to 1971.

Black was tapped for the highest court during his second term as a senator from Alabama. A month after his confirmation, there was national fury after it was published that Black had a brief stint as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He refused to resign, and while acknowledging he did hold a KKK membership at one time, said he abhorred racial and religious intolerance.

He "became arguably the most hated white man in the American South after he joined the unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing racial segregation," the Encyclopedia of Alabama states.

Black's decades on the bench produced dozens of opinions involving, among other things, the end of racial segregation (Brown v. Board of Education), upholding poor Americans' right to a lawyer regardless of their financial status (Gideon v. Wainright), and writing the opinion that banned religious prayers in public schools (Engel v. Vitale).

Black died in 1971 at age 85.

Nearly 50 years have passed since an Alabamian has held a seat on the highest court.

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