Vinson, Fred M. (1890–1953)

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VINSON, FRED M. (1890–1953)

Fred M. Vinson was appointed thirteenth chief justice of the United States by President harry s. truman in 1946 and served in that office until his death. His appointment followed a distinguished career in all three branches of the federal government. That career profoundly influenced his performance as Chief Justice.

Born and raised in the jail of Louisa, Kentucky—his father was the town jailer—he devoted almost his entire professional career to the public sector. Shortly after his admission to the bar, he served as city attorney and as Commonwealth attorney. Elected to Congress in 1928, he was an influential member of that legislative body during the new deal years. His judicial experience commenced with appointment as judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1937, and was broadened in 1942 when Chief Justice harlan fiske stonenamed him Chief Judge of the emergency court of appeals. His executive branch experience began with his 1943 appointment as director of Economic Stabilization, followed in 1945 by three posts in rapid succession: Federal Loan administrator, director of War Mobilization and Reconversion, and secretary of the Treasury.

He was appointed Chief Justice in 1946 to a Court widely regarded as ridden not only with the usual ideological disagreements but also with severe personal animosities. One successful aspect of his tenure as Chief Justice was the substantial reduction of public exposure of these conflicts.

In 1949, the deaths of Justices frank murphy and wiley b. rutledge were followed by the appointments of tom c. clark and sherman minton. These changes, which occurred just short of the midpoint of his tenure, shifted the balance of the Court to a more conservative position, one more consonant with his own judicial and political philosophy.

That philosophy must be ascertained more by inference than through direct revelation. During his seven years as Chief Justice, the number of cases heard by the Court declined; as Chief Justice he assigned comparatively few opinions to himself. The evidence makes clear, however, that his philosophy reflected his public and political experience, acquired during the New Deal and world war ii years, when a strong national government was deemed a sine qua non and loyalty to one's party and political confreres was a necessary condition of the success of the political process.

For him, the governmental institutions were democratically based, sound, and trustworthy; they were entitled to the loyalty of those whom they served and to protection from those who would destroy them. The judgments of the President and Congress that communism threatened both from without and from within were entitled to respect. The nation and its people fared better with a stable regime than with one of disruption; government was entitled at least to have time to respond to conflicts. The lowest person could rise to the highest office. Concomitantly—although the enactments of legislatures were normally to be respected—legal restrictions based upon race, disabling handicaps to the realization of the American dream, were disfavored. Even as his extensive federal governmental experience made him sympathetic to a strong central government, so his executive branch experience rendered him unafraid of strong executive power.

His tenure as Chief Justice spanned the Cold War era in which pro-Soviet attitudes that had developed during World War II became suspect. The rise of McCarthyism, the trial of Alger Hiss, the korean war, the theft of atomic secrets, and like events dominated public discussion and government reaction.

These events pervaded the atmosphere in which major constitutional issues were presented. Thus, his views about loyalty are perhaps best represented in those cases that sustained noncriminal deprivations addressed to communists and those considered disloyal, for example, his opinion for the Court in american communications association v. douds (1950); denial of taft-hartley collective bargaining benefits); and his votes in Bailey v. Richardson (1951; denial of federal employment) and joint anti-fascist refugee committee v. mcgrath (1951; blacklisting of suspected organizations).

His lack of sympathy for those whose purpose he viewed as destructive of the governmental institutions is evidenced in his plurality opinion in dennis v. united states (1951), which sustained against a first amendment claim the criminal convictions of communist leaders under the Smith Act, and his majority opinion in feiner v. new york (1951), affirming the conviction of an antigovernment speaker who refused to stop speaking when ordered to do so by a police officer after members of the audience threatened to assault him.

His concern for institutional stability is reflected in his opinion in united states v. united mine workers (1947), sustaining the judiciary's use of the contempt power to halt a disruptive strike, and his dissenting opinion in youngstown sheet & tube co. v. sawyer (1951), where he would have sustained the power of the President to seize steel mills to maintain steel production interrupted by a strike.

Overtaken by later cases, several of Vinson's most significant opinions advanced the elimination of racial discrimination and in theoretical terms expanded the interpretation of the equal protection clause. Although the unanimous opinions he authored in sweatt v. painter (1950) and mclaurin v. board of regents (1950) did not in terms overrule the separate but equal doctrine of plessy v. ferguson (1896), the rejection of the separate Texas law school in Sweatt and of the special treatment of McLaurin made the demise of that doctrine inevitable. His most interesting and venturesome equal protection opinion was shelley v. kraemer (1948), the restrictive covenant case, whose doctrinal implications have yet to be satisfactorily delineated.

Vinson accorded the federal government expansive legislative power under the commerce clause. Perceived conflicts between the federal government and the states were resolved in favor of a strong central government. Where the federal government had not spoken, his concern focused on discrimination against interstate commerce and the out-of-stater, a position most clearly seen in the stat etaxation of commerce cases and toomer v. witsell (1948), the path-breaking interpretation of the privileges and immunities clause of Article IV, which in effect extended his commerce clause philosophy to areas he thought the clause did not reach.

His general judicial approach inclined Vinson to focus on the particular facts of the case and to eschew promulgation of sweeping legal principles. He was slow to overrule earlier opinions and doctrines. The power of the Court to invalidate federal executive and legislative actions on constitutional grounds was to be used sparingly; he never voted to invalidate an act of Congress or a presidential action. He was as apt as any member of his Court, save perhaps Justice felix frankfurter, to avoid constitutional questions and, when those issues were faced, to take an intermediate rather than ultimate constitutional position. Clearly, Fred M. Vinson belonged to the "judicial restraint" school of Supreme Court Justices.

Murray L. Schwartz


Kirkendall, K. 1969 Fred M. Vinson. In Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, The Justices of the United States Supreme Court. Vol. 4:2639–2649. New York: Chelsea House.

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

Symposium 1954 Northwestern University Law Review 49:1–76.