Fred Vinson was born on January 22, 1890, in the Kentucky hamlet of Louisa, and after seven years of service as chief justice of the United States, died on September 8, 1953. A graduate of Centre College and its law school, he served for six terms in the United States House of Representatives before being appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1938. He sat there and on the Emergency Court of Appeals as its chief judge, where he heard appeals from wartime economic regulation, until 1943. Vinson then assumed critical positions in the executive branch: director of economic stabilization, director of postwar reconversion efforts, and Secretary of the Treasury.
President Harry S. Truman nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1946, hoping that Vinson could soothe the animosities among the justices of that fractious Court. These hopes were disappointed: few people could have harmonized the postwar Court. But Vinson was a more formidable judge than his detractors concede. His extensive experience in all three branches of government left him with an abiding appreciation for the necessity of vigorous government, especially in the executive branch, to preserve American liberty. Hence as a judge he never voted to hold a federal statute or an action of the executive branch unconstitutional.
Vinson wrote only a few noteworthy opinions, and nearly all of them involve civil liberties issues that were related directly or indirectly to the Cold War. His opinion in American Communications Association v. Douds (1950) sustained the anticommunist affidavit provisions of the Taft–Hartley Act of 1947. Writing for a plurality of the Court in Dennis v. United States (1951), Vinson upheld the Smith Act convictions of eleven national leaders of the Communist Party. Although in a dictum he endorsed the speech-protective readings of the clear-and-present-danger test by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Abrams v. United States (1919) and Justice Louis D. Brandeis in Whitney v. California (1927), Vinson attenuated the relationship between substantive evil (overthrow of government by force) and speech protected by the First Amendment. To sustain prosecutions on the basis of organizing the Communist Party and teaching its doctrines, Vinson relied on a sliding-scale test devised by Chief Judge Learned Hand in the Court of Appeals below, which permitted prosecution of acts posing only remote dangers if the ‘‘gravity of the evil’’ was great enough. Dennis provided the foremost constitutional endorsement of the second Red Scare, but it was not Vinson’s only contribution in that line.
Vinson’s final opinion for the Court justified denial of stays of execution to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, sustaining their capital convictions under the Espionage Act of 11917 as amended against persuasive constitutional and procedural objections. Throughout the contentious conference debates over their appeals, Vinson voted consistently to deny their petitions, and he used his position as chief justice to frustrate any possibility of delay in carrying out their death sentences.
Even when Cold War issues were not directly implicated, Vinson’s First Amendment opinions often retarded the cause of civil liberties and free expression. In Terminiello v. Chicago (1949), he dissented from a holding that protected the speech of a rabble-rousing anti-Semite. Two years later, in Feiner v. New York (1951), he wrote for the Court in sustaining the conviction of a leftist street ranter. His Feiner opinion, although of dubious authority today, remains significant for introducing the problem of the so-called heckler’s veto: the power of a hostile mob, backed by police, to quell speech by a speaker whose views were unwelcome to them. Vinson anticipated his Dennis opinion of that same year by suggesting that the First Amendment does not protect ‘‘incitement,’’ although neither opinion defined in any useful way what that vague concept meant.
The speaker whose topic was religion rather than politics fared better at Vinson’s hands. In two 1951 cases, Vinson overturned convictions of a Jehovah’s Witness and a Baptist minister, respectively, for conducting preaching in a public park or on city streets without first obtaining a permit on the grounds that the ordinances in question conferred excessive discretion on the permit-issuing authority (Niemotko v. Maryland, Kunz v. New York). He also condemned an ordinance that forbade door-to-door peddling of articles of commerce that included books (in this case, secular, nonpolitical reading materials) without prior consent by the homeowner (Breard v. Alexandria ).
Dedicated as he was to a vision of civic freedom sustained by effective governmental power, Chief Justice Fred Vinson subordinated civil liberties concerns to pressures of the national-security state in the early Cold War.
WILLIAM M. WIECEK
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited