Clark, Tom Campbell

views updated May 17 2018


Distinguished jurist and federal law enforcement official Tom Campbell Clark played a pivotal role in U.S. law following world war ii. During his three decades in the federal government, Clark served in various capacities in the department of justice (1937–45), as U.S. attorney general (1945–49), and as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1949–67). A conservative whose political philosophy moderated in his later years, Clark took part in the Supreme Court's expansion of civil rights and civil liberties in the 1960s.

Clark was born in Dallas on September 23, 1899, to a life of comfort and privilege. Following high school, he attended the Virginia Military Institute and then served as a sergeant in 1917, narrowly missing overseas action in world war i. After his discharge, Clark followed his grandfather, father, and brother into the practice of law. He entered the University of Texas, and completed bachelor of arts and bachelor of law degrees in 1922 before joining his father and brother in their law practice. He soon married Mary Jane Ramsey, a former fellow student, with whom he later had two children.

"Nothing can destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws, or worse, its disregard of the charter of its own existence."
—Tom Clark

Family political connections served Clark throughout his career. Help in launching his career came from two influential Texas politicians, Senator Tom Connally and Representative

Sam Rayburn. With Connally's help, Clark left private practice in 1927 to become the civil district attorney of Dallas County. He had a perfect prosecution record in his five years in the office. In the early 1930s, he was active in Texas politics as well as in corporate law, and he briefly represented the Texas Petroleum Council as a lobbyist fighting tax increases.

In 1937, Clark began his long career in Washington, D.C. He joined the U.S. Department of Justice as a special assistant to the attorney general, an appointment secured through the strong political support of Senator Connally.

The job required overseeing several department bureaus and prosecuting antitrust cases, in which he distinguished himself. By 1939, he was chief of the Antitrust Division's West Coast offices, fighting and ending price-fixing in the lumber industry.

During World War II, Clark held two leading positions in the Justice Department: chief of the Antitrust Division in 1942 and chief of the Criminal Division in 1945. Wartime had transformed the federal government, multiplying responsibilities for its officers, and thus, Clark found himself assisting the U.S. Army in a controversial domestic action: he coordinated the federal effort to round up and intern in camps American citizens of Japanese ancestry residing on the West Coast. Clark also worked closely with Senator Harry S. Truman's Special Senate Committee Investigating the War Program, which unearthed cases of war fraud for the Justice Department to prosecute.

Throughout the late 1940s, Clark and Truman's association benefited both men. Clark supported Truman at the 1944 democratic party convention, and was awarded an appointment to Truman's cabinet as U.S. attorney general. Holding the position from 1945 to 1949, he took the unusual step of personally arguing the federal government's position in antitrust cases—his specialty—before the U.S. Supreme Court. He also helped fuel the postwar era's red scare by investigating so-called subversive groups and helping to prosecute the leaders of the American Communist party. Clark's anti-Communism and loyalty to the president converged when Truman sought election in 1948. Republicans attacked Truman for not being sufficiently

anti-Communist, a common tactic in the era's fervent politics, and Clark came to his defense. After Truman won a second term, he appointed Clark to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1949.

In his early years on the bench, the new associate justice remained conservative. Under the leadership of Chief Justice fred m. vinson, the Court was reluctant to return decisions in favor of civil liberties, and Clark tended to vote with Vinson. But the character of the Court—and subsequently that of U.S. law—changed with the appointment of earl warren as chief justice in 1953. In its exercise of judicial review, the warren court placed a high value on the bill of rights, handing down decisions that profoundly altered the course of life in the United States.

Clark supported several of these decisions. Like the Court, he had changed, shifting toward a more moderate position on First and fourth amendment issues. He still resisted liberalism: for instance, he dissented in Aptheker v. Secretary of State, 378 U.S. 500, 84 S. Ct. 1659, 12 L. Ed. 2d 992 (1964), which struck down a provision of the Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950 (50 U.S.C.A. §785) that prevented members of the Communist party from securing passports. But on balance, he voted in favor of voting rights, privacy, and the separation of church and state.

In 1961, Clark wrote the majority opinion in mapp v. ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 81 S. Ct. 1684, 6 L. Ed. 2d 1081 (1961), a seminal and controversial decision. Mapp concerned the Fourth Amendment right to be secure from unreasonable searches. By a narrow 5–4 majority, the Court extended to defendants in state criminal cases a protection that had previously been available only in federal cases: it barred state prosecutors from using illegally obtained evidence under the so-called exclusionary rule. In theory, the Fourth Amendment had always protected citizens from government intrusion. But the amendment contains no specific means for redressing violations. Since the vast majority of criminal cases have always been brought at the state level, it took the decision in Mapp to give this liberty real teeth. Now, cases in which police officers abused their power—for example, by failing to properly obtain a search warrant—could be thrown out of court. "To hold otherwise," Clark wrote, "is to grant the right but in reality to withhold its privilege and enjoyment."

In 1963, Clark wrote the majority opinion in another pivotal civil liberties case. abington school district v. schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 83 S. Ct. 1560, 10 L. Ed. 2d 844, banned the Lord's Prayer and Bible reading from public schools. It followed by one year the Court's landmark ruling in engel v. vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 82 S. Ct. 1261, 8 L. Ed. 2d 601 (1962), which held unconstitutional a state-authored school prayer. Engel was the first major decision on the unconstitutionality of religious practice in public schools. Schempp went further. It issued the Court's first concrete test for determining violations of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Thus, it laid the groundwork for anti-prayer rulings that continued into the 1990s.

Earning a reputation for integrity and judicial independence, Clark remained on the Court until 1967. He stepped down to clear the way for his son, ramsey clark, to become U.S. attorney general, thus removing the possibility of a conflict of interest in government cases before the Supreme Court. But he did not leave the federal judiciary: he went on to become the only justice in U.S. history to sit on all eleven circuits of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

After Clark's death on June 13, 1977, in New York City, among the tributes paid to his life and work was this statement by U.S. Supreme Court Justice william j. brennan jr.: "His great distinction as a judge is the reflection of his conviction that it is wrong to live life without some deep and abiding social commitment."

further readings

Young, Evan A. 1998. Lone Star Justice: A Biography of Justice Tom C. Clark. Dallas, Tex.: Hendrick-Long.


Communism; Japanese American Evacuation Cases; Religion; School Prayer; Search and Seizure; Warren Court.

Tom Campbell Clark

views updated May 23 2018

Tom Campbell Clark

Tom Campbell Clark (1899-1977) served the United States for more than 20 years as President Harry S. Truman's attorney general and as a Truman appointee to the Supreme Court.

Dallas-born Tom Campbell Clark's soft-spoken drawl never disguised what for 22 years was one of the most influential legal minds in post World War II America. During four years as President Harry S. Truman's first attorney general (1945-1949) and for 18 years as one of Truman's four Supreme Court appointments (1949-1906), Tom Clark shaped American legal history.

Born September 23, 1899, to a prominent public family in Dallas Democratic party circles, Clark was raised a Presbyterian, as his Scotch-Irish ancestry predicted. He served for a short time in World War I and afterwards attended the University of Texas, graduating with a Bachelor's degree and an L.L.B. He joined his family's law firm in 1922. Two years later he married Mary Jane Ramsey, daughter of a Texas judge.

Clark's interest in politics and his family connections brought him to the attention of Congressman Sam Rayburn, later Speaker of the House, and of Senator Tom Connolly. During the 1920s and early 1930s, Clark engaged in private practice with occasional sallies into government service. An appearance on behalf of oil interests before the Texas legislature brought him censure from that body. In 1937 he joined the Justice Department and worked his way through that expanding agency in its New Deal heyday. A hard worker, politically reliable and well-connected, Clark rose rapidly under the benign protection of Rayburn, Connolly, and other patrons.

Clark was to spend the principal part of his public career as a Truman appointee and thus the relationship between the two is crucial. The public record is historically ambivalent, however. Clark and Truman first became associated during the work of the World War II "Truman Committee" (Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program) which uncovered waste and fraud in the war effort. Established in 1941, the committee functioned as a watchdog working closely with the Justice Department's War Fraud Unit, then headed by Tom Clark.

In 1944, when Senator Truman sought the vice presidential nomination in Chicago, Clark was one of his supporters while then-Attorney General Francis Biddle was not. Inaugurated in January 1945, Truman served a mere three months as vice president, succeeding President Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945. One month later Truman took steps to remove Biddle, informing him to his apparent dismay that Clark was his replacement at Justice.

Clark served Truman as attorney general for somewhat over four years, from July 1, 1945, to August 14, 1949. A dutiful Cabinet officer, he took an active role in antitrust cases and prosecuted subversives as part of Truman's anti-Communist activities. Unwilling to go beyond the bounds of moderation in loyalty cases, he was sometimes at odds with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Unique among his duties as attorney general were the thorny legal problems arising out of the war: black marketeering, alien internment and deportation, and disposition of government financed war factories.

Clark vigorously supported Truman's hard line against the Soviet Union which manifested itself in the Doctrine of Containment and the Truman Doctrine. In 1948 he was one of the president's most avid supporters, defending the administration's record on internal security matters.

Clark's tenure was marked by congressional criticism and by some scandal, including the famous case of T. Lamar Caudle, a tax expert he brought into the department who later went to jail for conspiracy involving tax fraud. By the time the Caudle scandal came to light, Clark had been appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, his judicial skirts raised clear of any mud by an overwhelming confirmation vote of 73 to eight (all eight dissenters being Republicans) taken on August 19, 1949.

Clark's 18 years on the Court spanned the most active period in its history, when it was the center of such vital and controversial issues as presidential power to seize private property, legislative reapportionment, school prayer, censorship, and civil rights.

Truman's appointment of Clark was generally attributed to the intervention of Chief Justice Fred Vinson, whom the president had chosen in 1946. In Clark, Vinson found a moderate Southerner he could work with.

As attorney general Clark had been thoroughly loyal to his chief, but his appointment to the Court freed him from that fealty and left him free to follow his own Constitutional dictates.

In the Steel Seizure case of 1952, both Truman and Vinson discovered Clark's independent mind when he joined five other Justices to overrule the seizure of the steel industry based on emergency inherent executive power.

The Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer decision declared Truman's act unconstitutional, thereby providing a significant check on presidential power.

A widely read biography of Truman later quoted the former president as describing his appointment of Clark as his "biggest mistake." According to oral biographer Merle Miller, Truman said: "He was no damn good as Attorney General, and on the Supreme Court … it doesn't seem possible, but he's been even worse." It is possible that Truman's disenchantment—if the quotation is accurate—was founded on the Youngstown decision.

In other instances of Court decisions Clark showed himself a moderate libertarian, somewhat to the right of William O. Douglas but certainly within Franklin D. Roosevelt's oft-quoted description of his own ideological position: slightly to the left of center. Clark wrote the unanimous decision in Burstyn v. Wilson (1952) which removed a state's right to censor a film on grounds of sacrilege. He joined the majority in striking down the use of the New York State Regents prayer in public schools (Engle v. Vitale, 1962). He supported the landmark Baker v. Carr reapportionment decision, although with reservations. And, in what was one of the most far-reaching judicial decisions of modern times, Clark was part of a unanimous Court's ruling on school desegregation when in 1954 Brown v. Board of Education reversed Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896.

Rising up the ladder of national prominence in the 1960s was Justice Clark's lawyer son, (William) Ramsey Clark. Paternal pride gave way to embarrassment, however, when President Lyndon Johnson selected the younger Clark to be his attorney general in 1967. To avoid potential conflicts of interest, Justice Clark resigned his seat, at the time calling his decision a "happy" one. Still a young man (67) by judiciary standards, he continued an active life on the Federal Court of Appeals until shortly before his death on June 13, 1977.

Further Reading

Tom Clark's role as attorney general can be studied from memoirs such as those of Forrestal and Ickes, as well as by standard works such as Robert J. Donovan's Conflict and Crisis (1977) and Tumultous Years (1982), dealing with the Truman era. He coauthored (with Philip B. Perlman) Prejudice and Proper, an Historic Brief Against Racial Covenants (1969). Standard works such as Alfred H. Kelly's and Winfred A. Harbison's The American Constitution (1977) put Clark's judicial career in context.

Additional Sources

Larrimer, Don, Biobibliography of Justice Tom C. Clark, Austin: Tarlton Law Library, School of Law, University of Texas at Austin, 1985. □