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Supreme Court Justices

Fred Vinson (1890-1953)

Fred Vinson was born in Kentucky on January 22, 1890. He received his law degree from Centre College, and then entered private practice. After serving as a district attorney, Vinson was elected to the House of Representatives in 1924. He served in the House from 1925-29, and 1931-37. (He was defeated in the 1928 elections, but again took office after winning election in 1930.) In 1937, Vinson was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. After six years on the Court, Vinson took a position in the executive branch, serving as director of Economic Stabilization. After FDR's death in 1945, Truman appointed Vinson Secretary of the Treasury. When Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone died in mid-1946, Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson believed he would be appointed Chief Justice, a position FDR had promised Jackson in 1941. When Justices William O. Douglas and Hugo Black suggested to Truman they might resign should Jackson be named Chief Justice, the private feud between Black and Jackson became public, and Truman looked to Vinson to resolve the personality disputes within the Court.

As Chief Justice, Vinson nearly always supported governmental action against constitutional challenges. He dissented in the Steel Seizure Case, in which the Court held unconstitutional on separation of powers grounds Harry Truman's seizure of steel mills to avert a strike. Unfortunately for both Truman and Vinson, Vinson had told Truman that, should Truman decide to seize the mills, a majority of the Court would support Truman's decision. Vinson wrote the opinion for the plurality in Dennis v. US (1951), in which the Court upheld convictions of Communists for violating the Smith Act (which forbade advocating or teaching the overthrow of any US government, even if only at some unspecified future time). In race relations cases, his record is an interesting mix. He wrote the Court's opinion in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which held the judicial enforcement of a racially restrictive covenant in the sale of a home was held state action, a far reaching interpretation of the 14th Amendment's state action doctrine, but was the only dissenter in Barrows v. Jackson (1953), which held that a person who violated a racially restrictive covenant could not be sued for damages. He also wrote the Court's opinions in Sweatt v. Painter (1951) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1951), which held the higher education systems in Texas and Oklahoma were structured in such a way as to violate the separate but equal standard of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), and ordered admission of the black plaintiffs to the previously all-white schools. But when Brown v. Board of Education was argued in the Court in 1952, Vinson was apparently opposed to overruling Plessy in the field of education, at least according to later statements by Justice William O. Douglas. A possibly apocryphal story is the supposed statement of Justice Felix Frankfurter, who, while riding the train back to Washington from Vinson's funeral and thinking of the forthcoming re-argument in Brown, stated that Vinson's death "is the only evidence I have ever had for the existence of God."

Vinson died on September 8, 1953, after a rehearing of the Brown case had been ordered, but before it took place. He was replaced by Earl Warren.