Clark, Tom C.

As attorney general, Clark designed and defended much of President Harry S Truman’s domestic anticommunism program. As a Supreme Court justice, he supported these and similar state-level loyalty programs and, in the Warren Court, opposed efforts to curb those programs.

Born into a family of Texas lawyers, Clark served in World War I and received a bachelor’s degree in 1921 from the University of Texas at Austin and a law degree from the same school in 1922. He practiced law in his father’s Dallas firm, served as the civil district attorney for Dallas County, and gained the respect and friendship of leading Texas Democratic politicians including Senator Tom Connally and Congressman Sam Rayburn.Truman, Harry S;nominations to the Court

Tom C. Clark

(Harris and Ewing/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 brought young Clark the opportunity to work for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. While at the department, Clark worked on wartime claims and the evacuation of JapaneseWorld War II;Japanese American relocationJapanese American relocation Americans from the West Coast. In 1943 he was promoted to assistant attorney general to head the antitrust division and later the criminal division.

Clark’s service in the Justice Department laid the groundwork for his later career. Then Missouri senator Harry S TrumanTruman, Harry S;Clark, Tom C.[Clark, Tom C.] led an investigation of wartime fraud. Findings were submitted to Clark, who ably prosecuted those accused. Clark worked to secure the 1944 Democratic vice presidential nomination for Truman. When Truman assumed the presidency at Roosevelt’s death, Clark’s appointment as attorney general was one of Truman’s important early appointments. As attorney general, Clark spoke for the Truman administration before congressional committees and personally argued several cases before the Supreme Court. However, Attorney General Clark was best known as one of the main designers of Truman’s domestic anticommunism program, including the preparation of the first attorney general’s list of dangerous political organizations.

Preparing for the 1948 presidential election, Clark successfully and accurately refuted claims that the Truman administration was “soft on communism.” His reward came one year after Truman’s 1948 victory when Truman nominated him to the Supreme Court. Clark served Truman well as attorney general, and many believed the nominee would likely support then Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson’s strong anticommunist views. Texas Democratic Party leaders and bar associations supported Clark’s nomination. The Senate confirmed the nomination by a vote of seventy-three to eight.

Associate Justice Clark supported the anticommunist views of the chief justice, usually voting to uphold anticommunist and loyaltyLoyalty oaths programs, including those established by state and local governments. However, he wrote for a unanimous court in Wieman v. Epdegraff[case]Wieman v. Epdegraff[Wieman v. Epdegraff] (1952) that mere membership of the accused in an organization on the attorney general’s list did not prove disloyalty. As a judge, Clark ruled that prosecutors misused the list he drew up years before as attorney general.

In 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s selection of Earl WarrenWarren, Earl;Clark, Tom C.[Clark, Tom C.] to succeed Vinson as chief justice changed Clark’s role on the Court. During the early years of the Warren Court, Clark wrote a series of noncontroversial antitrust majority opinions and was moved by Warren to join a unanimous Court seeking to end racially segregated public schooling and other early Warren Court civil rights decisions.

The appointment of William J. Brennan, Jr., in 1956 signaled the start of liberal dominance of the Court, led by Warren, Hugo L. Black, and William O. Douglas. Clark’s long-held anticommunist views and his willingness to support police and prosecutorial powers of the state contrasted with the views of more liberal Court members. Clark dissented again and again as the Court moved to expand the rights of the accused. Regarding loyalty-security decisions, he was usually in the minority, upholding government power while the majority supported the claims of individuals alleging governmental abuses.

With the arrival of the 1960’s, Clark turned to other matters. He led the Court in deciding Mapp v. Ohio[case]Mapp v. Ohio[Mapp v. Ohio] (1961), which required police and prosecutors not to use illegally obtained evidence to get a conviction. He also concurred in a historic decision, Baker v. Carr[case]Baker v. Carr[Baker v. Carr] (1962), which effectively required state legislatures to redraw electoral district boundaries to accommodate population shifts. Also, in Abington School District v. Schempp[case]Abington School District v. Schempp[Abington School District v. Schempp] (1963), Clark held that state and local governments violated the First Amendment establishment clause when they required schoolchildren to open the school day by saying officially prescribed prayers or reading from the Bible. Even as the Court’s concerns turned away from loyalty tests and related matters, Clark continued to resist challenges to state and local loyalty programs.

Family loyalty motivated Clark’s retirement from the Court. In February, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the appointment of Clark’sClark, Ramsey son, Ramsey, as attorney general of the United States. Knowing that his son would be presenting cases to the Court, Tom Clark retired in June, 1967, completing eighteen years of service on the Court.

Further Reading

  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Belknap, Michal R. The Vinson Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.
  • Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States. The Supreme Court of the United States: Its Beginnings and Its Justices, 1790-1991. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1992.
  • Kirkendall, Richard. “Tom C. Clark.” In The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions, edited by Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.
  • Urofsky, Melvin I. The Warren Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2001.

Abington School District v. Schempp

Baker v. Carr

Brown v. Board of Education

Civil rights and liberties

Cold War

New Deal

Vinson, Fred M.

Warren, Earl