Vinson, Fred M. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Vinson presided over the Supreme Court during the early years of the Cold War and a new era in racial equality. His opinions, though few, defended the federal government’s national security actions and set the stage for the civil rights revolution.

Vinson began his public career as a city attorney. In 1923 he was elected to Congress as a Democrat and served five uneventful years in a Republican-controlled House. Defeated in 1928, largely because he supported Al Smith for the presidency, he was reelected in 1930. With the coming of the New Deal, Vinson played a leading role in shaping the Social Security Act (1935) and supporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Court-packing plan. In 1938 Roosevelt rewarded Vinson by appointing him to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals and five years later asked him to become the director of the Office of Economic Stabilization and then director of War Mobilization and Reconversion. In 1945 President Harry S Truman chose Vinson to be secretary of the treasury. After Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone died, Truman named Vinson the thirteenth chief justice, a position he held from June 24, 1946, until September 8, 1953, when he died of a massive heart attack.Truman, Harry S;nominations to the Court

Fred M. Vinson

(James Whitmore/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Truman had hoped that Vinson would be able to lead the divided Court, but he had only limited success because he had to work with strong personalities such as Hugo L. Black, Felix Frankfurter, and William O. Douglas, and he did not have the intellectual skills to guide and influence his colleagues as they struggled with constitutional issues raised by the Cold War and the emerging Civil Rights movement. Vinson allowed Frankfurter and Black to define and lead the debate over the incorporation to the states of the Bill of Rights, and though he was deeply concerned about questions of national security and racial equality, he wrote relatively few majority opinions.

National Security

During Vinson’s tenure, the Cold WarCold War, the fear of communism,Communism and the government’s loyalty and security programs dominated the Court’s docket. Vinson’s two major opinions illustrate his support for these government programs and reveal his lack of sensitivity to claims of individual liberty. In American Communications Association v. Douds[case]American Communications Association v. Douds[American Communications Association v. Douds] (1950), he avoided the free speech issue and upheld the constitutionality of section 9 of the Taft-Hartley ActTaft-Hartley Act (1947), which required labor union officers to sign noncommunist affidavits, because it was reasonably related to a congressional interest in protecting interstate commerce from the consequences of a politically motivated strike. Then in Dennis v. United States[case]Dennis v. United States[Dennis v. United States] (1951), he directly confronted the First Amendment and affirmed the convictions of eleven Communist Party leaders for violating the Smith Act (1940), an antisubversive law. In his opinion for the Court, he purported to rely on the clear and present danger test, but he did not define it to require that speech be directly related to an actual attempt to overthrow the government by violence. Instead, he read the test to extend to a conspiracy to advocate the evil of violent overthrow and permitted speech to be proscribed, no matter how remote, because the gravity of that evil was so great.

Vinson’s commitment to a strong federal government included a vigorous conception of the presidency, a view reflected in his dissent in Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer[case]Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer[Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer] (1952). In this case, he rejected the Court’s view that President Truman’s seizure of the steel mills was an unconstitutional encroachment on the power of Congress to make law. Truman’s action, he argued, was a response to a genuine emergency, preventing a strike that would have imperiled the conduct of the KoreanKorean War War, and was taken pursuant to his power as commander in chief and his duty to enforce congressional statutes authorizing seizure.

Racial Equality

The Court took decisive action against racial discrimination in education, housing, transportation, criminal justice, voting rights, and labor relations. A moderate on race relations, Vinson made his distinctive contribution to the struggle for racial equality when he wrote unanimous opinions for the Court in three major cases. In Shelley v. Kraemer[case]Shelley v. Kraemer[Shelley v. Kraemer] (1948), he held that judicial enforcement of racially restrictive covenants violated the equal protection clause. Two years later, he handed down Sweatt v. Painter[case]Sweatt v. Painter[Sweatt v. Painter] (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education[case]McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education[MacLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education] (1950) on the same day. In his Sweatt opinion, he acknowledged that the white University of Texas Law School and the state’s African American law school were not physically equal but declined to follow the separate but equal doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson[case]Plessy v. Ferguson[Plessy v. Ferguson] (1896), instead crafting a new equal protection standard based on intangible differences, “those qualities which are incapable of objective measurement.” Based on this new standard, Vinson found that racial segregation in legal education violated the equal protection clause. In his McLaurin opinion, he applied his Sweatt definition of equality to physical racial barriers created within a formerly all-white graduate school and found that separate classroom, cafeteria, and library seating were inequalities that would handicap the ability of African Americans to receive an effective education.

Immediately after these decisions, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People initiated five lawsuits involving segregated public elementary and secondary schools in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and the District of Columbia. In 1952 the Court heard oral arguments in all five, now known by the title of the Kansas case: Brown v. Board of Education[case]Brown v. Board of Education[Brown v. Board of Education] (1954), but instead of deciding them, Vinson announced in June, 1953, that the cases would be reargued the following term. When the Court reheard the cases, Earl Warren, the new chief justice, presided. On May 17, 1954, the Warren Court handed down a unanimous opinion that relied on Vinson’s Sweatt and McLaurin opinions to hold “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

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.
  • Pritchett, C. Herman. Civil Liberties and the Vinson Court. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954.
  • Rudko, Frances. Truman’s Court: A Study in Judicial Restraint. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1988.
  • St. Clair, James E. Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson of Kentucky: A Political Biography. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
  • Urofsky, Melvin. Division and Discord: The Supreme Court Under Stone and Vinson, 1940-1953. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

American Communications Association v. Douds

Brown v. Board of Education

Clear and present danger test

Cold War

Dennis v. United States

Equal protection clause

McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

Restrictive covenants

Separate but equal doctrine

Shelley v. Kraemer

Smith Act

Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer

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