Vinson Court (1946–1953)

views updated

VINSON COURT (1946–1953)

fred m. vinson was Chief Justice of the United States from June 24, 1946, until his death on September 8, 1953. During his seven-year period of service the Supreme Court was considerably less interesting, colorful, or originative of significant constitutional doctrine than its predecessor, the stone court, or its successor, the warren court. However, the Vinson Court did deal with serious and important issues, particularly Cold War challenges to civil liberties and awakening concerns about racial discrimination.

Vinson was a close friend of President harry s. truman and an active Democrat who had had the unique experience of serving in all three branches of the federal government. Immediately preceding his appointment to the Court he had been secretary of the treasury. President Truman had made one previous appointment, naming harold burton, a Republican and former senate colleague of Truman, to replace owen roberts in 1945. The other seven justices were of course all holdovers from the Stone Court, which guaranteed a continuation of the judicial dialogue that had pitted the liberal activism of hugo l. black, william o. douglas, frank murphy, and wiley b. rutledge against the brilliant critiques of felix frank-furter and robert h. jackson, with the moderate stanley f. reed somewhere in the center.

The four-judge liberal bloc had within itself the votes required to grant certiorari petitions, which ensured that civil liberties issues would continue to appear on the Court's agenda. When the liberals agreed, they needed only one additional vote to constitute a majority. But in the summer of 1949 Justices Murphy and Rutledge died, cutting the liberal bloc in half. President Truman filled these two vacancies by the appointment of tom c. clark, his attorney general, and sherman minton, who had been a New Deal senator from Indiana. The two new justices joined with Vinson, Reed, and Burton in a moderately conservative bloc which dominated the remaining four terms of the Vinson Court. An indication of the balance of power on the Court is provided by the number of dissents registered by each of the Justices during this four-year period: Clark 15, Vinson 40, Burton 44, Minton 47, Reed 59, Jackson 80, Frankfurter 101, Douglas 130, Black 148.

The most famous decision of the Vinson Court in terms of public reaction, and probably the most noteworthy as a contribution to constitutional theory, was youngstown sheet tube co. v. sawyer (1952), generally known as the Steel Seizure Case. Here the Court by a vote of 6–3 held unconstitutional President Truman's seizure of the nation's steel mills in 1952, an action he justified as necessary to avert a nationwide strike that might have affected the flow of munitions to American troops in Korea. The President had no statutory authority for the seizure, which consequently had to be justified on a theory of inherent presidential power to meet emergencies.

Justice Black, supported by Douglas, flatly denied the existence of any inherent presidential powers. Justices Jackson and Frankfurter were less dogmatic, and the doctrine of the case is generally drawn from their opinions. As they saw it, the controlling factor was that Congress had considered granting the President seizure power to deal with nationwide strikes when adopting the taft-hartley act in 1947 but had decided against it. In addition, Jackson contributed a situational scale for ruling on claims of executive emergency power. Vinson, in his most famous dissent, upheld the President as having moved in an emergency to maintain the status quo until Congress could act, and he rejected the majority's "messenger boy" concept of the presidential office.

The fact that the Court could have avoided the constitutional issue in the Steel Seizure Case by various alternatives suggested that most of the justices believed it important to announce a check on presidential power. The decision was enormously popular with the press and public and has subsequently been accepted as an authoritative statement on the separation of powers, establishing that actions of the president are subject to judicial review. There had been some doubt on this point since the failure of the post-civil war suit against the president in mississippi v. johnson (1867). It established also that executive claims of power for which statutory authority is lacking, and which must consequently rely on the President's general Article II authority, are subject to strict judicial scrutiny.

Less significant in its doctrine than the Steel Seizure Case but almost as controversial was the Court's contempt ruling against John L. Lewis, leader of the coal miners, in 1947 (united states v. united mine workers). The government had seized the nation's bituminous coal mines in 1946 to end a crippling strike and had entered into a contract with Lewis on wages and working conditions. When Lewis subsequently terminated the contract unilaterally and resumed the strike, the government secured a contempt judgment and heavy fine against Lewis and the union. In his first major opinion Vinson upheld the conviction for contempt, ruling that the norris-laguardia act limiting the issuance of labor injunctions was not binding on the government as an employer.

A significant difference between the Stone and Vinson Courts was that world war ii had ended and the Cold War against communism had begun. The hunt for subversives in which the nation was caught up soon after the shooting war was over tainted the entire period of the Vinson Court and created difficult civil liberties issues. The government's principal weapon against suspected subversion was the Smith Act of 1940, which made it unlawful to teach and advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force and violence, or to organize a group for such a purpose.

Convictions of eleven leaders of the American Communist party under the Smith Act were upheld by the Supreme Court in dennis v. united states (1951). In the most memorable event of his judicial career, Chief Justice Vinson wrote the Court's majority opinion defending the Smith Act against contentions that it violated the first amendment. The defendants admittedly had taken no action with the immediate intention of initiating a revolution. But Vinson held that the clear and present danger test, developed by Justice oliver wendell holmes and louis d. brandeis, did not require the government to wait until a "putsch" was about to be executed before acting against a conspiracy. Vinson accepted the reformulation of the test developed by Judge learned hand : "Whether the gravity of the "evil,' discounted by its improbability, justifies such invasion of free speech as is necessary to avoid the danger." He considered the communist "evil" to be that grave. Justices Black and Douglas dissented; Douglas pointed out that the prosecution had introduced no evidence of Communist party action aimed at overthrow of the government.

Vinson also wrote the Court's opinion in american communications association v. douds (1950), upholding the Taft-Hartley Act noncommunist oath. This statute denied the protections and services of the wagner (national labor relations) act to any labor organization whose officers failed to file affidavits that they were not members of the Communist party. The Chief Justice held that Congress in adopting this statute was acting to prevent the obstruction of commerce by "political strikes." The law was not aimed at speech but rather at harmful conduct carried on by persons who could be identified by their political affiliations and beliefs.

The Vinson Court was caught up in the final moments of the Cold War's most spectacular event, the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were charged with passing atomic "secrets" to the Russians. Review of the lower court conviction and subsequent appeals was routinely denied by the Supreme Court in 1952 and early 1953, as were also the initial petitions for stay of execution. But Justice Douglas thought that one final petition filed the day before execution was scheduled raised a new legal issue deserving consideration. He consequently granted a stay which the full Court set aside the next day, and the executions were then carried out. Douglas's action caused a brief furor and a congressman demanded his impeachment. In the last opinion before his death Vinson defended Douglas's action as a proper response to protect the Court's jurisdiction over the case pending a consideration of the legal issue raised. Black and Frankfurter joined Douglas in asserting that the stay should have been granted.

During the era of the Vinson Court, congressional committee investigations of communism developed into major political and media events. Senator Joseph McCarthy's pursuit of "Fifth Amendment Communists" got under way in 1950, too late to create issues for the Vinson Court. But the house committee on un-american activities had begun operations in 1938, and by 1947 petitions for review of contempt citations against witnesses who had refused to reply to committee interrogation began to reach the Supreme Court. However, it declined review of all the cases that would have required a ruling on the constitutionality of the use of investigatory power, and it dealt only with certain less controversial issues of committee procedure and use of the Fifth Amendment privilege by witnesses.

A prominent feature of the Cold War period was concern about the loyalty of government employees. aloyalty oath fad developed in nearly every state, which the Vinson Court legitimated in gerende v. board of supervisors of elections (1951) by upholding a Maryland law that required candidates for public office to file affidavits that they were not "subversive persons."

A loyalty program covering federal employees was set up by President Truman in 1947 and was continued by President dwight d. eisenhower. It required checking the loyalty of all incumbent employees and all applicants for federal employment. A complex administrative organization of loyalty review boards was created, and to assist the boards the attorney general issued a list of organizations he found to be "totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive." Consideration of the constitutionality of this program split the Court 4–4 in Bailey v. Richardson (1951). But in joint anti-fascist refugee committee v. mcgrath (1951), decided the same day, the Court by a vote of 5–3 challenged the attorney general's list as having been drawn up without appropriate investigation or due process. The dissenters were Reed, Vinson, and Minton. In spite of this opinion the list continued to be used for a number of years in government hiring and investigation.

At the state level a New York law providing for the removal of public school teachers on grounds of membership in listed subversive organizations was upheld in adler v. board of education of city of new york (1952), Justice Minton reasoning that the purpose was constitutional and that procedural protections provided by the statute were adequate. Justices Black and Douglas dissented, and Frankfurter would have denied the appeal on technical grounds of standing and ripeness.

Apart from Cold War cases, freedom of speech and freedom of the press did not suffer seriously at the hands of the Vinson Court. burstyn v. wilson (1952) was in fact an advance in its holding that a motion picture could not be censored on the ground that it was "sacrilegious." A law censoring magazines featuring bloodshed and lust was struck down in Winters v. New York (1948) as void for vagueness. Poulos v. New Hampshire (1953) upheld licensing of meetings in public parks and streets, but only if the licenses were granted without discrimination, and the use of licensing ordinances to prevent unpopular religious groups or preachers from holding meetings in public parks was rebuffed in niemotko v. maryland (1951) and kunz v. new york (1951).

In terminiello v. chicago (1949) a divided Court reversed on rather technical grounds the conviction of a rabble-rouser for breach of the peace resulting from an incendiary speech. But feiner v. new york (1951) upheld the conviction of a soap-box orator even though the situation was much less inflammatory than in Terminiello. Moreover, beauharnais v. illinois (1952) approved a state law treating critical comments about racial groups as criminal and subjecting their authors to prosecution for group libel.

The Vinson Court dealt with a number of conflicts between freedom of expression and privacy but without producing any theories justifying or limiting privacy claims such as those subsequently developed in griswold v. connecticut (1965) by the Warren Court. Use of sound trucks in streets and parks was initially upheld in Saia v. New York (1948) against contentions of infringement on privacy, but in the following year the Court conceded that "loud and raucous" sound trucks could be forbidden (kovacs v. cooper). Radio broadcasts including commercial messages in district of columbia streetcars were permitted to continue by Public Utilities Commission v. Pollak (1952), even though captive audiences might suffer, but Breard v. City of Alexandria (1951) protected householders by approving an ordinance forbidding door-to-door selling of magazine subscriptions. Justice Black charged that the latter decision violated the "preferred position" for First Amendment freedoms originated by the Roosevelt Court. The severest blow to that philosophy was United Public Workers v. Mitchell (1947) which upheld by a vote of 4–3 the hatch act limits on political activity by public employees.

In a 1940 case, thornhill v. alabama, the Court had strongly asserted that picketing in labor disputes was protected by the First Amendment. Almost immediately, however, the Court found it necessary to announce limits on this holding, a process the Vinson Court continued. The most significant case was giboney v. empire storage ice co. (1949), where the Court ruled unanimously against a union that was picketing to force an employer to enter into an illegal restrictive contract.

The issue of public financial aid to religious schools required the Vinson Court to make the first significant effort to interpret and apply the First Amendment ban on establishment of religion. everson v. board of education (1947) involved a state arrangement under which parents could be reimbursed from public moneys for their children's bus fare to parochial schools. An unusual five-judge majority composed of three liberals (Black, Douglas, and Murphy) and two conservatives (Vinson and Reed) held that the subsidy was simply a social welfare measure and that the First Amendment did not require exclusion of persons of any faith from the benefits of "public welfare legislation." Rutledge's vigorous dissent regarded payment for transportation to church schools as a direct aid to religious education and so unconstitutional.

The following year mccollum v. board of education presented another church-state issue. The case involved a released time program of religious education under which public school children attended classes in Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Jewish religious instruction during school hours and in the school building. The Court's almost unanimous verdict of unconstitutionality aroused a storm of criticism in church circles, and within four years the Court substantially reversed this ruling, upholding a New York City released time program that differed from McCollum only in that the classes were held off the school grounds (zorach v. clausen, 1952.) A similar reluctance to disturb the religious community was seen as the Court avoided on technical grounds of standing a ruling on the constitutionality of Bible-reading in the public schools (doremus v. board of education, 1952).

The Vinson Court's civil liberties record was distinctly better than that of its predecessors in one area, protection of minorities from discrimination. The prevailing constitutional rule was that established by plessy v. ferguson in 1896—that segregation of the races was constitutional provided treatment or facilities were equal. In practice, they were never equal, but over the years the Court had consistently avoided the difficult task of enforcing the Plessy rule. In the field of education, none of the few efforts to challenge unequal facilities had been successful. But in 1938 the hughes court made a small beginning, ruling in missouri ex rel. gaines v. canada that Missouri, which denied blacks admission to state law schools, must do so or set up a separate law school for blacks. morgan v. virginia (1946) invalidated a state Jim Crow law requiring racial segregation of passengers on public motor carriers, but the constitutional ground given was burden on interstate commerce rather than denial of equal protection.

The Vinson Court undertook cautiously to build on these beginnings. The commerce clause justification used in the Virginia bus case was likewise employed in boblo excursion co. v. michigan (1948). But the Vinson Court's boldest action against segregation came shortly thereafter in shelley v. kraemer (1948). With Vinson writing the opinion, the Court declared that restrictive covenants binding property owners not to sell to minorities, although within the legal rights of property owners, were unenforceable. For a court to give effect to such a discriminatory contract, Vinson held, would amount to state action in violation of the fourteenth amendment.

The separate law school for blacks that Texas had established was declared unequal in sweatt v. painter (1950). The University of Oklahoma, forced to admit a black graduate student, required him to sit in a separate row in class, at a separate desk in the library, and at a separate table in the cafeteria. mclaurin v. oklahoma state regents (1950), with Vinson again writing the opinion, held these practices to be an unconstitutional impairment of the student's ability to learn his profession.

Vinson's opinion, however, rejected the opportunity to consider the broader issue of the Plessyseparate but equal rule. So attacks on the segregation principle continued, and the test cases moved from the universities and graduate schools to the primary and secondary schools. In December 1952 brown v. board of education and four other school segregation cases were argued for three days before the Court. But instead of a decision in June, the Court set the cases for reargument in October. The Chief Justice died in September, and so the Vinson Court's most momentous issue was passed on to the Warren Court.

Although the Stone Court had broken some new ground in criminal procedure, its record was mixed, particularly in guaranteeing the right to counsel and protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. This latter issue surfaced in the Vinson Court's first term. One of the oldest problems in American constitutional law is whether the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment "incorporated" and made effective in state criminal proceedings the protections of the Fourth through the Eighth Amendments. As recently as 1937 in palko v. connecticut the Court had reiterated the principle that all state procedures consistent with ordered liberty are acceptable.

In Adamson v. California (1947) the Palko doctrine survived on the Vinson Court, but by only a 5–4 vote. Justice Black led the minority. He relied on legislative history to establish his version of the intention of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment and attacked the ordered liberty test as substituting natural law and the notions of individual Justices for the precise and protective language of the bill of rights.

Although Black lost in Adamson, "ordered liberty" was a standard powerful enough to bring state criminal processes within the ambit of the fourth amendment in wolf v. colorado (1949). However, Justice Frankfurter for the six-judge majority held only that searches and seizures by state law officers are bound by the standard of reasonableness; he declined to go further and impose on state prosecutions the exclusionary rule which prevents evidence secured by unconstitutional means from being offered in federal prosecutions. Justices Murphy, Douglas, and Rutledge, dissenting, contended that the exclusionary rule provided the only effective protection against police violation of the Fourth Amendment, and their view was finally adopted on the Warren Court in mapp v. ohio (1961).

With respect to right to counsel, the Vinson Court accepted the rule announced by the Stone Court in betts v. brady (1942) that the necessity for counsel depended upon the circumstances, such as the seriousness of the crime, the age and mental capacity of the defendant, and the ability of the judge. Applying the "special circumstances" rule in twelve cases, the Vinson Court concluded that in six the absence of counsel had resulted in denial of a fair trial. In only one of the twelve was the Court unanimous. This experience was a factor in the Warren Court's decision in gideon v. wainwright (1963) to abolish the confusing special circumstances rule and make counsel mandatory in all state felony prosecutions.

What was potentially one of the Vinson Court's most significant decisions for the federal system was nullified by Congress. In 1947 the Court ruled that subsurface land and mineral rights in California's three-mile coastal area belonged to the federal government (United States v. California), and in 1950 the Court applied the same rule to Texas. Congress retaliated in 1953 by ceding to the states ownership of land and resources under adjoining seas up to a distance of three miles from shore or to the states' historic boundaries.

In summary, the tendency of the Vinson Court was to follow a policy of judicial restraint, rejecting innovation or activism. The number of cases decided by full opinion fell below one hundred during three of the last four years, far less than the number typically decided by earlier Courts. The five justices who dominated the Court in its latter period were capable but lacking in style or originality. The four Justices of intellectual distinction—Black, Douglas, Frankfurter, and Jackson—generally paired off and pulled in opposite directions.

The pall of the Cold War hung over the Court. Confronted with the scandal of mccarthyism, it was quiescent. Facing Smith Act prosecutions, the loyalty inquisition of federal employees, lists of subversive organizations, scrutiny of school teachers' associates, loyalty oaths, and deportation of ex-communists, the Court's response was usually to legitimate the government's action.

But in one field, significantly, there was a different kind of response. The Vinson Court did not evade the issue of racial discrimination. Although moving cautiously, as was appropriate considering the enormity of the problem, the Court nevertheless proceeded to bring denial of equal protection out of the limbo of neglect and unconcern into the focus of national consciousness and thereby prepared the way for its successor's historic decision on May 17,1954.

C. Herman Pritchett


Frank, John P. 1954 Fred Vinson and the Chief Justiceship. University of Chicago Law Review 21:212–246.

Murphy, Paul L. 1972 The Constitution in Crisis Times, 1919–1969. New York: Harper & Row.

Pritchett, C. Herman (1954) 1966 Civil Liberties and the Vinson Court. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Swindler, William F. 1970 Court and Constitution in the Twentieth Century: The New Legality, 1932–1968. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.