Minton, Sherman Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Minton was the last justice to have political experience before his appointment to the Supreme Court, serving in the U.S. Senate from 1934 to 1940. As a result of his political experience, Minton believed in judicial restraint and deference to executive and legislative action in judicial decision making.

From hardscrabble origins in southern Indiana, Minton excelled through hard work, tenacity of purpose, and political friendships. Minton attended the University of Indiana as an undergraduate, where he did well in his classes and excelled in sports. He then attended the Indiana Law School, where he graduated at the top of his class in 1915. For this achievement, Minton won a scholarship for a year’s graduate education at the Yale Law School where he studied under former president William H. Taft, who encouraged Minton’s interest in politics.Truman, Harry S;nominations to the Court

Sherman Minton

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

After serving in the U.S. Army during World War I, Minton returned to southern Indiana and ran for Congress in 1920; he lost in the Democratic primary. To support himself and his family, Minton practiced law. In 1930 Minton again entered the Democratic primary and again lost. In the early 1930’s he renewed a friendship with the future governor of Indiana, Paul V. McNutt, who appointed Minton to his first public position in 1933, public counselor to the Indiana Public Service Commission. Having kept his name before the public in this high-profile position, Minton decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 1934. An adamant supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, Minton defeated incumbent Republican Senator Arthur Robinson and took his seat in March, 1935. Throughout his single term in the Senate, Minton unquestioningly supported the New Deal, and he proved himself to be a cagey political fighter. He became friends with the junior senator from Missouri who would later appoint him to the Court, Harry S Truman. Minton led the attack on the Supreme Court when it appeared that the New DealNew Deal might be overturned in 1935-1936 and supported Roosevelt’s Court-packing plan of 1937 before its failure. Minton ran for a second term in the Senate in 1940 but lost when Republican presidential nominee Wendell Wilkie of Indiana swept the state.

In 1941 Minton’s friends secured for him a position as one of President Roosevelt’s special assistants coordinating military agencies. In late 1941 when a judgeship became available on the Seventh Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, Roosevelt appointed Minton to the seat as payment for his service to the New Deal.

Appointment to the Court

Minton served on the Seventh Circuit until September 15, 1949, when President Harry S Truman appointed him to replace Wiley B. Rutledge, Jr., on the Court. His appointment was not without controversy. Republicans raised questions regarding whether Minton, known as a fierce Democrat, possessed the proper judicial temperament for the Court and questioned why he would want to serve on a Court he once bitterly attacked. Although he declined to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying that it would be improper for a sitting judge to testify, the committee advanced his nomination with a 9-2 vote. The Senate approved his appointment on October 4, 1949, by a 48-16 vote, and he was sworn in eight days later.

On the Court, Minton proved himself to be a competent justice. His most sympathetic biographers describe his effect on the Court as “minimal,” while one biographer concludes that Minton “left no judicial legacy.” As a justice, Minton’s opinions reflected his years as a senator and the Cold War environment of the 1950’s. He believed that the executive and legislative branches of the federal government should be granted wide discretion for action in a dangerous world, and judicial restraintJudicial self-restraint should guide the judiciary. Three cases demonstrate these values. First, in United States ex rel. Knauff v. Shaughnessy[case]Shaughnessy, United States ex rel. Knauff v.[Shaughnessy, United States ex rel. Knauff v.] (1950), Minton upheld the executive’s power under a 1941 statute to bar from entering the country aliens who might be a security risk and to do so without granting them a hearing. The German bride of an American soldier sued when she was denied entry; she claimed that the War Brides Act of 1945 permitted her both a hearing and admission to the country. In his majority opinion for the Court, Minton wrote that the president could exclude Knauff and that the War Brides Act did not apply.

Two years later, in Adler v. Board of Education[case]Adler v. Board of Education[Adler v. Board of Education] (1952), Minton demonstrated his deference to executive power when he wrote the majority opinion upholding New York’s Feinberg Law, which permitted school boards to fire teachers who belonged to subversive organizations. Lastly, Minton joined the dissenters in Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer[case]Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer[Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer] (1952), who would have upheld President Truman’s seizure of the steel industry in a national crisis. Minton had always opposed state-sponsored discrimination based on race, so it is not surprising that he considered his participation in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) as the most important case heard by the Court during his term of service. His chronic pernicious anemia and circulatory problems convinced him to leave the Court in 1956; President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed New Jersey Supreme Court Judge William J. Brennan, Jr., in his place.

Further Reading
  • Atkinson, David N. “Justice Sherman Minton and the Protection of Minority Rights.” Washington and Lee Law Review 34 (Winter, 1977): 97-117.
  • 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.
  • Gugin, Linda C., and James E. St. Clair. Sherman Minton: New Deal Senator, Cold War Justice. Indianapolis, Ind.: Indiana Historical Society, 1997.
  • Urofsky, Melvin I., ed. The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland, 1994.
  • Urofsky, Melvin I., ed. The Warren Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2001.
  • Wallace, Harry L. “Mr. Justice Minton--Hoosier Justice on the Supreme Court.” Indiana Law Review 34 (Winter, 1959): 145-205; (Spring, 1959): 377-424.

Brennan, William J., Jr.

Brown v. Board of Education

Court-packing plan

Judicial self-restraint

Lower federal courts

New Deal

Roosevelt, Franklin D.

Rutledge, Wiley B., Jr.

Wartime seizure power

Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer

Categories: History