Vinson Court (1946–1953)

Author:C. Herman Pritchett

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FRED M. VINSON was Chief Justice of the United States from June 24, 1946, until his death on September 8, 1953. During his seven-year period of service the Supreme Court was considerably less interesting, colorful, or originative of significant constitutional DOCTRINE than its predecessor, the STONE COURT, or its successor, the WARREN COURT. However,

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the Vinson Court did deal with serious and important issues, particularly Cold War challenges to CIVIL LIBERTIES and awakening concerns about RACIAL DISCRIMINATION.

Vinson was a close friend of President HARRY S. TRUMAN and an active Democrat who had had the unique experience of serving in all three branches of the federal government. Immediately preceding his appointment to the Court he had been secretary of the treasury. President Truman had made one previous appointment, naming HAROLD BURTON, a Republican and former SENATE colleague of Truman, to replace OWEN ROBERTS in 1945. The other seven justices were of course all holdovers from the Stone Court, which guaranteed a continuation of the judicial dialogue that had pitted the liberal activism of HUGO L. BLACK, WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS, FRANK MURPHY, and WILEY B. RUTLEDGE against the brilliant critiques of FELIX FRANK-FURTER and ROBERT H. JACKSON, with the moderate STANLEY F. REED somewhere in the center.

The four-judge liberal bloc had within itself the votes required to grant CERTIORARI petitions, which ensured that civil liberties issues would continue to appear on the Court's agenda. When the liberals agreed, they needed only one additional vote to constitute a majority. But in the summer of 1949 Justices Murphy and Rutledge died, cutting the liberal bloc in half. President Truman filled these two vacancies by the appointment of TOM C. CLARK, his attorney general, and SHERMAN MINTON, who had been a New Deal senator from Indiana. The two new justices joined with Vinson, Reed, and Burton in a moderately conservative bloc which dominated the remaining four terms of the Vinson Court. An indication of the balance of power on the Court is provided by the number of dissents registered by each of the Justices during this four-year period: Clark 15, Vinson 40, Burton 44, Minton 47, Reed 59, Jackson 80, Frankfurter 101, Douglas 130, Black 148.

The most famous decision of the Vinson Court in terms of public reaction, and probably the most noteworthy as a contribution to constitutional theory, was YOUNGSTOWN SHEET TUBE CO. V. SAWYER (1952), generally known as the Steel Seizure Case. Here the Court by a vote of 6?3 held unconstitutional President Truman's seizure of the nation's steel mills in 1952, an action he justified as necessary to avert a nationwide strike that might have affected the flow of munitions to American troops in Korea. The President had no statutory authority for the seizure, which consequently had to be justified on a theory of inherent presidential power to meet emergencies.

Justice Black, supported by Douglas, flatly denied the existence of any inherent presidential powers. Justices Jackson and Frankfurter were less dogmatic, and the doctrine of the case is generally drawn from their opinions. As they saw it, the controlling factor was that Congress had considered granting the President seizure power to deal with nationwide strikes when adopting the TAFT-HARTLEY ACT in 1947 but had decided against it. In addition, Jackson contributed a situational scale for ruling on claims of executive emergency power. Vinson, in his most famous dissent, upheld the President as having moved in an emergency to maintain the status quo until Congress could act, and he rejected the majority's "messenger boy" concept of the presidential office.

The fact that the Court could have avoided the constitutional issue in the Steel Seizure Case by various alternatives suggested that most of the justices believed it important to announce a check on presidential power. The decision was enormously popular with the press and public and has subsequently been accepted as an authoritative statement on the SEPARATION OF POWERS, establishing that actions of the president are subject to JUDICIAL REVIEW. There had been some doubt on this point since the failure of the post-CIVIL WAR suit against the president in MISSISSIPPI V. JOHNSON (1867). It established also that executive claims of power for which statutory authority is lacking, and which must consequently rely on the President's general Article II authority, are subject to strict judicial scrutiny.

Less significant in its doctrine than the Steel Seizure Case but almost as controversial was the Court's contempt ruling against John L. Lewis, leader of the coal miners, in 1947 (UNITED STATES V. UNITED MINE WORKERS). The government had seized the nation's bituminous coal mines in 1946 to end a crippling strike and had entered into a contract with Lewis on wages and working conditions. When Lewis subsequently terminated the contract unilaterally and resumed the strike, the government secured a contempt JUDGMENT and heavy fine against Lewis and the union. In his first major opinion Vinson upheld the conviction for contempt, ruling that the NORRIS-LAGUARDIA ACT limiting the issuance of labor INJUNCTIONS was not binding on the government as an employer.

A significant difference between the Stone and Vinson Courts was that WORLD WAR II had ended and the Cold War against communism had begun. The hunt for subversives in which the nation was caught up soon after the shooting war was over tainted the entire period of the Vinson Court and created difficult civil liberties issues. The government's principal weapon against suspected subversion was the Smith Act of 1940, which made it unlawful to teach and advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force and violence, or to organize a group for such a purpose.

Convictions of eleven leaders of the American Communist party under the Smith Act were upheld by the Supreme Court in DENNIS V. UNITED STATES (1951). In the most memorable event of his judicial career, Chief Justice Vinson wrote the Court's majority opinion defending the

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Smith Act against contentions that it violated the FIRST AMENDMENT. The defendants admittedly had taken no action with the immediate intention of initiating a revolution. But Vinson held that the CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER TEST, developed by Justice OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES and LOUIS D. BRANDEIS, did not require the...

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