Fred Vinson

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Fred Vinson

Fred Vinson (1890-1953) was an undistinguished chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who consistently subordinated individual rights to the needs of government.

Frederic Moore Vinson is probably America's least written-about chief justice. His obscurity protects his reputation. During seven years on the Supreme Court this conservative jurist persistently sacrificed individual rights to what he perceived as the needs of government.

His disappointing chief justiceship contrasted with a long and laudable career as a public servant. Vinson came to Washington from northeastern Kentucky, where he had been born on January 22, 1890, in the Louisa jail building. His father, then the jailer, also farmed, operated several businesses, and served as a town marshal. Young Fred was raised in a rather disciplinarian household. After receiving primary and secondary schooling in Louisa and nearby Cattlesburg, he matriculated at the Kentucky Normal School, from which he graduated in 1908. Vinson then attended Centre College, earning both a B.A. and a law degree from that institution and compiling the highest average in the history of its law school. From 1911 to 1923 he practiced law in Louisa, also serving briefly as city attorney and commonwealth attorney.

In 1923 Vinson won a special election to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Except for two years following the election of 1928, which he lost because of his support of Al Smith's presidential candidacy, he remained in the House until 1938. At first his committee assignments were poor, but after working his way up through Military Affairs and Appropriations, he became a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee in 1931. There Vinson earned a reputation as a tax expert, and during the New Deal he played a major role in drafting such crucial legislation as the Social Security Act. Although basically conservative, he loyally supported the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, even backing the president's attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court.

Administrator and Jurist

Loyalty and service earned him a nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1938. Although remaining there for five years, Vinson found the life too quiet and cloistered. In 1942 he agreed to serve as chief judge of the Emergency Court of Appeals, and when Roosevelt offered to make him director of economic stabilization in May 1943 he accepted enthusiastically.

During his 21 months in that position Vinson was remarkably successful in checking inflation. In August 1945 he left to become federal loan administrator, and a month later he took over the Office of War Mobilization and Re-conversion. There Vinson managed to reorient the economy from war production to peace production while minimizing disputes between civilian agencies and the military. President Truman rewarded him with appointment as secretary of the treasury. Vinson's achievements during his 11 months in that position included inauguration of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Monetary Fund.

When death claimed Chief Justice Harlan Stone in 1946 Harry Truman, greatly impressed with Vinson's record and abilities, asked him to take charge of a faction-ridden Supreme Court. Vinson failed to unite it. Although public quarreling among the justices ceased, deep intellectual divisions persisted, and the excess of dissenting and concurring opinions which had damaged the Stone Court's reputation continued. Vinson provided no intellectual leadership. Indeed, his most notable achievement was cutting the Court's workload back to mid-19th-century levels through vigorous use of its power to decide what cases it would hear.

Vinson wrote fewer than a half dozen majority opinions of profound public consequence. The common characteristic of his judicial expositions was support for governmental authority against claims of individual right. Probably because of his experiences in Congress during the Depression and in the executive branch during World War II, he considered strong government essential to the survival of any political society and a strong national government vital to the United States. Vinson almost always resolved state-federal conflicts in Washington's favor. He also championed presidential power, especially in times of national emergency. Thus, when the Court ruled that Truman could not seize the nation's steel mills during the Korean War, the chief justice dissented strongly. He was intensely patriotic, and for him the essence of patriotism was giving priority to the interests of the government, especially during a crisis.

Civil Liberties and Civil Rights

Viewing postwar America as in almost perpetual crisis, Vinson seldom decided a difficult civil liberties issue in favor of the individual. Believing his country was in a de facto state of war with international Communism, he modified First Amendment doctrine in a restrictive direction in order to accommodate the conviction of Communist Party leaders under the Smith Act and to sustain the anti-Communist affidavit provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act. Vinson also endorsed loyalty oaths, the attorney general's list of subversive organizations, and harsh treatment of aliens. In criminal procedure cases, too, he assigned far greater weight to the interests of society than to the rights of the individual. He voted to increase the permissible breadth of searches and seizures, decrease safeguards against the use of forced confessions, and maintain limitations on the right to counsel. In terms of support for civil liberties claims, Vinson ranked next to last among the 11 justices who served between 1946 and 1952.

Contrasting starkly but deceptively with this dismal record are his opinions in three major civil rights cases. Vinson spoke for the Court when it forbade judicial enforcement of racially restrictive covenants. He was also its spokesman when it held that neither a separate law school for African Americans in Texas nor an internally segregated education graduate program in Oklahoma satisfied the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment. These decisions are often viewed as precursors of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which held separation of the races in public schools unconstitutional. But Vinson's opinions tended to minimize their legal impact. He probably went along with these unanimous rulings less out of conviction than because of a desire to support policy positions of the Truman administration, to which he remained intensely loyal, and a determination to deprive the Communists of a propaganda issue. It is notable that Vinson was the only member of his Court to vote against African American claims in all four of the non-unanimous civil rights cases it decided and that before his death on September 8, 1953, he voted against the position the Court eventually took in Brown. Even in the area of civil rights, Fred Vinson was far from a great chief justice.

Further Reading

There are no book-length biographies of Vinson, but he has been the subject of two doctoral dissertations—historian John Henry Hatcher's "Fred Vinson: Congressman from Kentucky—A Political Biography 1890-1938" (University of Cincinnati, 1967) and political scientist James Bolner's "Mr. Chief Justice Vinson: His Politics and Constitutional Law" (University of Virginia, 1962). Neither author had access to the Fred Vinson Papers, now deposited at the University of Kentucky. Nor did Richard Kirkendall, whose "Fred Vinson" in The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions 1789-1969, edited by Leon Friedman and Fred Israel (1969), Vol. 4, is the best short summary of Vinson's career. Irving F. Lefberg, "Chief Justice Vinson and the Politics of Desegregation, " Emory Law Journal (Spring 1975), is a superb critique of Vinson's civil rights record by a political scientist. John P. Frank, "Fred Vinson and the Chief Justiceship, " University of Chicago Law Review (Winter 1954), is an effective analysis of his work on the Supreme Court, and James Bolner, "Fred M. Vinson 1890-1938: The Years of Relative Obscurity, " The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society (January 1965), is informative concerning his early life and congressional career. The Northwestern University Law Review devoted most of its March-April 1954 number to Vinson, but the only article that is much more than a fond remembrance by a former associate is Francis A. Allen's "Chief Justice Vinson and the Theory of Constitutional Government: A Tentative Appraisal."

Additional Sources

Palmer, Jan (Jan S.), The Vinson court era: the Supreme Court's conference votes: data and analysis, New York, N.Y.: AMS Press, 1990. □