Vinson Court (1946–1953)
On June 24, 1946, President Harry Truman appointed Fred Vinson to replace Chief Justice Harlan Stone after the death of Stone in April. Having served in every branch of the federal government at the time of his appointment, Vinson came to the Court with a broad experience rarely held by a Supreme Court justice. Vinson was born in Louisa, Kentucky, on January 20, 1890. He left Louisa after graduating high school to attend Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, where he completed both his undergraduate and law degree. On graduation, Vinson started his legal career in private practice. Later, he served as a Commonwealth Attorney for the state of Kentucky until he won a seat to the House of Representatives in 1924. As a congressman, Vinson distinguished himself on tax matters and in his skills as a negotiator. In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him to the D.C. Circuit Court. However, in 1943, Vinson resigned his judgeship to work as the director of the newly created Office of Economic Stabilization. Subsequently, Vinson held positions as the director of Federal Loan Agency, the director of War Mobilization and Reconversion, and finally as the Secretary of Treasury. Vinson, who was fifty-six years old when called to succeed Stone, was widely respected in Washington and was considered by some as a potential presidential candidate.
Vinson assumed the chief justiceship at a time of disorder on the Supreme Court. He found a court torn by ideological and personal conflicts between the justices. The most public of which was between Justices Hugo Black and Robert Jackson over judicial ethics and who should succeed Stone as the Chief Justice. The dispute began in 1945 when Jackson argued that Black should have recused himself from the Jewell Ridge case, a case in which Black’s former law partner, Crampton Harris, was involved. It continued into 1946, when Black is said to have threatened to resign if Jackson were elevated to the Chief Justice position as a replacement for Chief Justice Stone. At the time, Jackson had been serving as the chief prosecutor at the Nuremburg War Tribunal. When Truman appointed Vinson as Chief Justice, Jackson publicly criticized Black for his involvement in the Jewell Ridge case. The feud seemed to resolve itself publicly on Jackson’s return from Nuremburg, but privately the feud continued to negatively influence the Court.
Another less public dispute but equally fractious was the ideological battles between Justice Black and Justice Felix Frankfurter concerning the role that judges should play in the American judicial system. Black was an advocate of the principle that judges and courts had a duty to preserve individual liberties. Black felt that blind deference to government was to forfeit the responsibility a judge has to preserve the Constitution. Black believed in the literal meaning of the Constitution and that judges should look to the text to find definite rules with which to guide their analysis and interpretation. Frankfurter was an advocate for judicial self-restraint and the principle that public policy should be made by elected representatives rather then judges. Frankfurter consistently supported judicial caution and deference to Congress and the states. He believed in balancing the individual interest against the interests of society and that courts should be careful in finding too many prohibitions in the Constitution. These differences in judicial philosophy led to heated debates that would last the duration of the Vinson Court.
Although Vinson proved himself capable as a legislator and later as an administrator in the executive branch, his political skills proved less effective in managing the disputes between the justices. One of the most glaring examples of the divisions on the Court were the number or concurring and dissenting opinions written in the seven years that Vinson served as Chief Justice. Moreover, several of the justices, Frankfurter and Black in particular, openly challenged his authority to lead the Court and often questioned his ability to handle complex legal questions.
The disorder within the Court was mirrored by turmoil in the nation. The Vinson Court sat during a time in American politics that saw the nation struggling over the twin fears of a Cold War with the Soviet Union and a growing Communist influence within the nation. Facing a panic that threatened to spiral out of control, President Truman on March 27, 1947, ordered the implementation of a loyaltysecurity program that required all persons suspected of subversive activity to take a loyalty oath. The oath, among other terms, required that the individual swear not to take part in any anti–U.S. government or antidemocratic activities. Several months after the initiation of the loyalty-security program, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) began a series of hearings to uncover a Communist plot to take over the movie industry. The hearings lead to further investigations of Communist influences in the nation’s labor unions, colleges, and government. These fears and actions led to policies that directly endangered individual rights.
At the same time, the increasing power of the African-American vote and the civil rights movement led President Truman to commission a review of the status of racial discrimination in the nation. The October 1947 report entitled ‘‘To Secure These Rights,’’ reaffirmed the principle that each person, regardless of race, should have equal opportunity in education, employment, and housing. It also called for a strong federal government effort to eliminate segregation from American life. The report, however, angered white southerners and their supporters in Congress who effectively limited Truman’s efforts to implement the reforms to actions he could make without Congressional approval through his executive authority.
Under these circumstances, the Vinson Court’s record on civil liberties was quite mixed. The Court often upheld limitations on freedom of speech, due process, and the freedom of association, but on civil rights and issues of desegregation, the Court overturned several statutes that eventually lead to the rejection of the separate but equal policy in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.
The Vinson Court’s first free speech, Terminiello v. Chicago (1949) led to a five-to-four decision overturning the conviction of an anti-Semitic defrocked Catholic priest whose speeches led to a riot by protestors. Police arrested Terminiello for disturbing the peace, even though it was his opponents who, in fact, disturbed the peace. Justice Douglas’s opinion upheld the right of speech even for people who are deemed hateful. Justice Robert Jackson, who had recently prosecuted Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg Trials, dissented, arguing that Terminiello’s anti-Semitic tirades did not constitute free discussion but rather were similar to the tactics of the Nazis in seizing power in Germany. He argued such speech constituted a clear and present danger to liberty and peace in America. Whatever the merits of Jackson’s arguments, this would be the last important free speech victory in the Vinson Court.
American Communications Assn. v. Douds. (1950) involved a provision of the Taft–Hartley Act that imposed certain restrictions on labor organizations that failed to file ‘‘non-Communist’’ oaths with the National Labor Relations Board. The union argued this violated the fundamental First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly. According to the Court, Congress’ power to regulate commerce between the states allowed it to require the oaths that the Court found were reasonably related to the legitimate fear that Communist union leaders could burden commerce by organizing strikes and work stoppages. By an odd five-to-one vote the Court upheld this provision, with Justice Black dissenting and Douglas, Clark, and Minton not participating. Justices Frankfurter and Jackson concurred in the result on technical grounds but objected to the idea that Congress could impose a test on the beliefs and political views of labor leaders.
In 1951, the Court decided two free speech cases that reflected the growing anti-Communism in the nation and the decreasing support for political dissent. At the beginning of 1951, the Court upheld the conviction of Irving Feiner, who had been arrested after giving a speech on a street corner denouncing President Truman. Feiner had not advocated violence, but a crowd hostile to him threatened to attack him. In Feiner v. New York (1951), the Court, in effect, allowed the ‘‘heckler’s veto’’ to overrule the free speech rights of a nonviolent speaker. Most observers believe that Fiener’s leftist views influenced the Court.
In Dennis v. United States (1951), the Court went further. The issue in this case was whether sections of the Smith Act, which made it a crime merely to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government, were constitutional. According to the Court, when the speech demonstrates, ‘‘a clear and present danger,’’ then government action is justified. The Court went on to say that the government does not need to wait until an attempt against it is made as long as an advocate for the overthrow of the government exists and there is the possibility that he may carry out his intentions. Indeed, the Court here expanded the power of government to suppress speech that presented no clear or present danger. Thus the Court upheld convictions of Communist Party leaders who merely advocated a communist state and taught about it but had taken no steps to start a revolution. A year later the Court upheld, by a vote of five to four, the conviction of Joseph Beauharnais, a white supremacist who had been prosecuted under an Illinois law prohibiting group libel. Although fearful of communism at the high point of the McCarthy era, the Vinson Court also feared fascism in the wake of World War II. Thus, it showed little respect for dissenting political views or notions that radical theories should be presented to the marketplace of ideas.
The Court had a mixed record on religious liberty and the Establishment Clause. In its first religion case, Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township (1947), the Vinson Court, in a five-to-four decision allowed a New Jersey school district to provide school busses for students attending parochial schools. Justice Hugo Black, quoting Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Church, said that ‘‘the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a ‘wall of separation between Church and State.’’’ However, as Justice Robert Jackson noted in dissent, the decision did not in fact support that wall. Rather, the dissenters argued that by approving the use of state money to support parochial education, the court breached the wall. A year later, in McCullom v. Board of Education (1948), with Court struck down the use of school facilities for ‘‘church schools.’’ Illinois allowed clergymen from various faiths to come into the school to conduct religious education. The school monitored this attendance while providing free facilities to the religious educators. In a concurring opinion Frankfurter supported this result but attacked the decision in Everson, declaring that ‘‘separation means separation, not something else.’’ He argued that American freedom depended on secular education for all people in the same schools and that ‘‘the public school must keep scrupulously free form entanglement in the strife of sects.’’ The issue of religion arose again in Zorach v. Clauson (1952). This case involved New York’s policy of allowing children to leave school early to go to ‘‘church schools’’ where they received religious education during the school day. Here the Court backed away from McCullom, allowing the policy. In writing an opinion for a six-to-three majority, Justice William O. Douglas noted that ‘‘we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.’’ Douglas found this program constitutional because the school did not instruct anyone in religion, and no religious instruction took place on school grounds. Critics argued that the school laws required all children to attend school for a certain number of hours and to allow some to leave for religious education was in itself an establishment. In Niemotko v. Maryland (1951), the Court overturned the convictions of Jehovah’s Witnesses who held meetings in public parks without permits. The Court ruled the city had denied permits because it did not approve of the religious views of the Witnesses, and this violated the free speech rights of Niemotko. Although not a religion case per se, this case did support religious free speech. In Niemotko v. Maryland (1951), the Court overturned the convictions of Jehovah’s Witnesses who held meetings in public parks without permits. The Court ruled the city had denied permits because it did not approve of the religious views of the Witnesses, and this violated the free speech rights of Niemotko. Although not a religion case per se, this case did support religious free speech. Indirectly, the Vinson Court also supported religious free exercise in Ballard v. United States (1946), where the Court reversed the conviction of Edna Ballard, a religious leader who had been convicted of fraud. Ballard did not win on free exercise grounds. Rather, the Court reversed because women had been systematically excluded from federal juries in California.
The Vinson Court was generally unsympathetic to the rights of the accused. Ballard v. United States (1946) was an exception to this. Thus, in Brinegar v. United States (1949), the Court upheld the search of car without a warrant because the police alleged the car seemed to be ‘‘weighted down with something,’’ which turned out to be illegal liquor. More significantly, in Adamson v. California (1947), the Court refused to apply the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on forced self-incrimination to the states. Justice Black vigorously dissented here, arguing that the entire Bill of Rights should be incorporated to the states.
One of the Vinson Court’s most important decisions was Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952), which prevented President Truman from seizing and operating privately owned steel mills in the wake of steel workers strike during the Korean War. This case remains a major precedent for limiting the power of the executive, even in times of crisis, and preserving the Bill of Rights—in this case the Fifth Amendment—even in times of war.
The Vinson Court was very protective of civil rights and the civil liberties of minorities. In Takahashi v. Fish and Game Commission (1948), the Court overturned a California law that denied commercial fishing licenses to Japanese immigrants. Federal law prohibited Japanese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens, and California used this to deny them other rights, such as commercial fishing licenses. The Court found that aliens legally in the United States had a right to earn a living, just as American citizens did. In Oyama v. California (1948), the Court prevented that state from seizing property purchased by a Japanese immigrant for his Americanborn son. Several cases illustrate the Vinson Court’s stance on desegregation. In Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), the issue was whether states could enforce private agreements to exclude persons from owning or using real estate on the basis of their race. The Court held that although the private agreements were not unconstitutional, state enforcement of such agreements were a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In Sweatt v. Painter, the Court struck down the separate but equal education policy in Texas law schools when it found that the education that the petitioner would receive in a separate law school for African Americans would not be ‘‘substantially equal’’ to what he would receive at the University of Texas Law School. In McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, the issue was whether the appellant, an African-American student, could be separated from his classmates in the classroom, library, and cafeteria on the basis of his race. The Court found that the Fourteenth Amendment required that the appellant’s admission into a state-supported graduate program guaranteed that he should receive the same treatment ‘‘at the hands of the State as students of other races.’’ In Terry v. Adams (1953), the Court once again struck down an attempt by Texas Democrats to exclude blacks from their primaries. An earlier decision, Smith v. Allwright (1944), had prohibited the allwhite primary. In response some Democrats, known as ‘‘Jaybirds’’ organized a private primary before the official one, which was only open to whites. All whites in the county then agreed to vote for whoever won that primary in the official primary a month later. In Terry v. Adams, the Court prohibited this practice, thus expanding the voting rights of blacks in Texas.
The Court had a chance to make a decision on the Brown case, hearing oral arguments in December 1952. However, disagreement among the justices on the legal basis in which to abolish segregation forced the Court to postpone making a ruling and order a reargument of the case on October 12, 1953. Then, with a little more than a month before rearguments could take place, Vinson died suddenly on September 8, 1953, of a heart attack. President Eisenhower promptly appointed California governor Earl Warren as his replacement, thereby ending the Vinson Court.
In addition to Justices Jackson, Black, and Frankfurter, the Vinson Court included Roosevelt appointees William Douglas, Stanley Reed, Frank Murphy, Wiley Rutledge, and Truman appointees Harold Burton, Tom C. Clark, and Sherman Minton.
The last important case decided by the Vinson Court was Rosenberg v. United States (1953), which most scholars consider one of the great miscarriages of American justice. The case involved Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been convicted of espionage for allegedly giving the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. They were sentenced to death, and when the sentences were carried out, they became the only civilians ever executed for peacetime espionage in American history. Justices Douglas, Frankfurter, and Black argued that their death sentence had been illegally imposed and that the law under which they were convicted was no longer in force. Chief Justice Vinson and five other members of the Court disagreed. Despite many problems with their trial, and serious doubts about whether they had in fact passed any secrets to the Soviet Union, Vinson and his colleagues allowed the executions to go forward. Scholars today debate the guilt or innocence of the Rosenbergs, but few scholars or legal experts defend the Court, which heard the case on June 17 and decided it on June 19 without a signed opinion or any full debate or discussion of the issues. Here the Vinson court reflected the anticommunist paranoia of the age rather than the traditions of careful consideration of law and principles of justice.
References and Further Reading
- Belknap, Michal R. The Vinson Court: Justices, Rulings and Legacy. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.
- Murphy, Paul L. The Constitution in Crisis Times, 1918–1969. New York. Harper and Row, 1972.
- St. Clair, James E., and Linda C. Gugin. Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson of Kentucky:APolitical Biography. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
- Urofsky, Melvin, and Paul Finkelman. A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Cases and Statutes Cited
- American Communications Assn. v. Douds, 339 U.S. 382 (1950)
- Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)
- Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494 (1951)
- Jewell Ridge Coal Corp. v. Local NO. 6167, et al., 325 U.S. 161 (1945)
- McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637 (1950)
- Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948)
- Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950)
- Labor Management Relations Act, Act of June 23, 1947, c. 120, 61 Stat. 136
- National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act), Act of July 5, 1935, 49 Stat. 449
- Smith Act, Act of June 28, 1940, 54 Stat. 671