Fred M. Vinson was appointed thirteenth CHIEF JUSTICE of the United States by President HARRY S. TRUMAN in 1946 and served in that office until his death. His appointment followed a distinguished career in all three branches of the federal government. That career profoundly influenced his performance as Chief Justice.
Born and raised in the jail of Louisa, Kentucky?his father was the town jailer?he devoted almost his entire professional career to the public sector. Shortly after his admission to the bar, he served as city attorney and as Commonwealth attorney. Elected to Congress in 1928, he was an influential member of that legislative body during the NEW DEAL years. His judicial experience commenced with appointment as judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1937, and was broadened in 1942 when Chief Justice HARLAN FISKE STONEnamed him Chief Judge of the EMERGENCY COURT OF APPEALS. His executive branch experience began with his 1943 appointment as director of Economic Stabilization, followed in 1945 by three posts in rapid succession: Federal Loan administrator, director of War Mobilization and Reconversion, and secretary of the Treasury.
He was appointed Chief Justice in 1946 to a Court widely regarded as ridden not only with the usual ideological disagreements but also with severe personal animosities. One successful aspect of his tenure as Chief Justice was the substantial reduction of public exposure of these conflicts.
In 1949, the deaths of Justices FRANK MURPHY and WILEY B. RUTLEDGE were followed by the appointments of TOM C. CLARK and SHERMAN MINTON. These changes, which occurred just short of the midpoint of his tenure, shifted the balance of the Court to a more conservative position, one more consonant with his own judicial and political philosophy.
That philosophy must be ascertained more by inference than through direct revelation. During his seven years as Chief Justice, the number of cases heard by the Court declined; as Chief Justice he assigned comparatively few opinions to himself. The evidence makes clear, however, that his philosophy reflected his public and political experience, acquired during the New Deal and WORLD WAR II years, when a strong national government was deemed a sine qua non and loyalty to one's party and political confreres was a necessary condition of the success of the political process.
For him, the governmental institutions were...