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Justice Minton participated in 670 cases.
Joined with Majority571
Concurring in Judgment7
Did Not Participate27
Jurisdictional Dissent1

Minton, Sherman

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Birth: October 20, 1890, Georgetown, Indiana.

Education: Indiana University, LL.B., 1915; Yale University, LL.M., 1917.

Official Positions: Public counselor, Public Service Commission, 1933–1934; U.S. senator, 1935–1941; assistant to president, 1941; judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, 1941–1949.

Supreme Court Service: Nominated associate justice by President Harry S. Truman, September 15, 1949, to replace Wiley B. Rutledge, who had died; confirmed by the Senate, October 4, 1949, by a 48–16 vote; took judicial oath October 12, 1949; retired October 15, 1956; replaced by William J. Brennan Jr., nominated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Death: April 9, 1965 in New Albany, Indiana.

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Sherman Minton
Noteworthy Opinions

Sherman Minton

Sherman Minton, the first Supreme Court justice from Indiana, was President Harry Truman's final appointment to the Court. As a member of the conservative “Truman bloc,” led by Chief Justice Fred Vinson, Minton supported the broad exercise of executive and legislative power and approved the restriction of civil liberties in the name of national security. More than any other Truman nominee, however, Minton was ideologically committed to the philosophy of judicial restraint, providing a theoretical grounding for the rulings of his more politically inclined colleagues.

Minton's judicial philosophy grew out of his political experiences during the Great Depression. In 1934 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he befriended Truman, another freshman senator. Minton vigorously supported Franklin Roosevelt's economic policies, and when the Supreme Court invalidated New Deal legislation, he harshly attacked the tribunal for substituting its own political judgment for that of Congress. He introduced legislation that would have required the vote of seven justices to declare a federal statute unconstitutional, and he championed Roosevelt's “Court-packing” scheme before a skeptical Senate. In 1940, after Minton lost his bid for reelection, Roosevelt invited his supporter to join the White House staff. Six months later, when a vacancy occurred on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which included Minton's home state, Roosevelt rewarded him with a judicial appointment.

Following Justice Wiley Rutledge's death in 1949, Truman nominated his old friend to the Supreme Court. The nomination followed Truman's pattern of naming political allies to the bench, although in this case the usual criticism was somewhat muted because Minton had more judicial experience than any of Truman's previous nominees. Perhaps because of a growing concern for judicial professionalism, however, Minton was the last member of Congress to be named to the Court. During the confirmation hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, several Republicans questioned Minton's fierce Democratic loyalties, and other members wondered whether he could fairly serve on a tribunal that he had so recently criticized. The committee reported the nomination favorably, and the Senate confirmed him, 48–16, with most of the opposition coming from Republicans.

Guided by his frustration with the judicial activism of economic conservatives during the Great Depression, Minton adopted a philosophy of judicial restraint. The duty of the Court, he believed, was to determine whether the Constitution granted the political branches the power to enact certain policies, not to judge the wisdom of those policies. He adhered strictly to precedent, interpreted statutes and constitutional provisions narrowly, and deferred to the judgment of the other branches. This practice comported with the views of Truman's other appointees—Harold Burton, Tom C. Clark, and Vinson—and with Stanley Reed, who often joined the Truman bloc. These justices, however, used judicial restraint more as a vehicle for political conservatism than as a coherent philosophy of adjudication. Minton was more faithful to the values of Felix Frankfurter, the Court's leading theorist of judicial restraint, although Frankfurter's concern for the independence of the judiciary and his willingness to look beyond the formalistic application of precedent often led him to disagree with Minton.

In addition to professing judicial restraint, Minton also emphasized to his colleagues the importance of acting as a unified deliberative body. He believed that a judicial opinion should reflect the judgment of the Court, not the personal views of its author, and he willingly altered passages in his opinions if another justice threatened to dissent. He disdained concurring opinions, writing only three in his entire career, because they obscured the singular reasoning of the majority. When writing for the majority, Minton ignored countervailing arguments, so that his opinions resembled the advocacy of an appellate attorney more than the jurisprudential musings of a justice like Frankfurter.

Minton's approach to judging was evident in one of his earliest and most controversial opinions, United States ex rel. Knauff v. Shaughnessy (1950). Under the authority of a 1941 statute that allowed the executive branch to exclude aliens who posed a security risk, the attorney general had prohibited Ellen Knauff, the German-born wife of an American soldier, from entering the country. Knauff claimed that she had been denied due process because the government had not conducted a hearing. Minton held that the president's inherent power to conduct foreign affairs included the authority to exclude aliens, placing those decisions outside the scope of judicial review. Knauff demonstrated Minton's deference to other branches, particularly when national security issues were involved, but it also revealed his cramped view of statutory interpretation. The War Brides Act of 1945 had relaxed the criteria for admitting the alien spouses of American military personnel, but Minton dismissed its relevance because it had not specifically limited the 1941 statute.

Because of his belief that the political branches of government were best equipped to assess national security interests, Minton also upheld the power of Congress and state legislatures to combat subversion by limiting the freedom of expression and association. In Adler v. Board of Ed. of the City of New York (1952), a teacher challenged New York's “Feinberg Law,” which allowed school boards to fire teachers for disloyalty if they belonged to certain organizations. Praising the law's goal of shielding children from dangerous ideas, Minton upheld the use of group membership as evidence of disloyalty because “one's reputation [is] determined in part by the company he keeps.” He denied that the law infringed on teachers' freedom of association because they were free to choose between public employment or membership in a subversive organization.

Decisions such as Adler disappointed civil libertarians, especially because Minton had promised when he joined the Court to “work fiercely for the enforcement of the Bill of Rights.” Actually, Minton compiled a libertarian record in free expression cases unrelated to national security issues by supporting the right of speakers to espouse unpopular views without government interference. These opinions were the product not only of a genuine concern for First Amendment freedoms but also of a respect for precedents established in the 1930s and 1940s. In International Brotherhood of Teamsters v. Hanke (1950), for example, Minton dissented from Frankfurter's majority opinion, which upheld restrictions on labor picketing, because earlier cases had clearly held that picketing was a form of speech protected by the First Amendment.

In criminal procedure cases, however, he allowed the government wide latitude to control criminal behavior. His most important opinion in this area, United States v. Rabinowitz (1950), held that the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement and its prohibition against unreasonable searches were separate provisions, meaning that searches incident to arrest were to be judged by the reasonableness of the search rather than the reasonableness of obtaining a warrant. This ruling overturned a three-year-old precedent that required police officers to obtain search warrants, when practicable, before searching a suspect. Minton also narrowly interpreted the right to counsel, the privilege against self-incrimination, and the availability of federal habeas corpus relief for state prisoners. He was especially loath to grant relief when defendants alleged technical errors rather than asserted their innocence.

Minton's deference to legislative judgment did not extend to race relations. He opposed all forms of government-sponsored discrimination, as evidenced by his vigorous support of the school desegregation cases. He considered Brown v. Board of Education (1954) to be the most significant case in which he participated. In his majority opinion in Barrows v. Jackson (1953), he extended the holding of Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which forbade the judicial enforcement of restrictive covenants, by prohibiting courts from awarding damages to property owners who sued their neighbors for violating restrictive covenants.

Consistent with his judicial philosophy, however, Minton strictly interpreted the Constitution's state action doctrine, which limited the application of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to discriminatory practices that were directly authorized by state legislatures or government officials. In Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen v. Howard (1952), for example, Justice Hugo Black held that a white union, bargaining under the authority of the Railway Labor Act, could not infringe on the rights of other workers by persuading a railroad to replace black porters with the union's members. Minton's dissent, joined by Vinson and Reed, countered that the union, as a private association, could conduct negotiations in any manner it pleased. Similarly, in a lone dissent in Terry v. Adams (1953), he insisted that the preprimary elections conducted by the private Jaybird Democratic Association, which excluded black members, did not constitute state action, even though the Jaybird primary had governed the selection of local Texas leaders for half a century. Private discrimination, however objectionable, could only be forbidden by the courts if the government directly enforced it.

When his anemia forced Minton reluctantly to retire, he predicted that “there will be more interest in who will succeed me than in my passing.” His remarks were prescient, as he left no judicial legacy. He had emerged as a leader of the Truman bloc, forging compromises that fostered the public's image of institutional stability, but his influence waned significantly after Earl Warren became chief justice. Minton's opinions lacked the elegant reasoning that characterizes great jurists, but, more important, as a proponent of judicial restraint, he lacked Frankfurter's ability to transcend the more doctrinaire aspects of the philosophy. Minton's jurisprudence sprang from his experience during the New Deal, when activist judges attempted to preserve a laissez-faire economy in the face of massive societal dislocation. By the time he reached the Court, however, his approach, particularly his reverence for precedent, deprived him of the opportunity to lead a Court that had begun to use activist principles to protect individual rights and liberties from government interference.


Two book-length biographies of Minton have been published: Linda C. Gurgin and James E. St. Clair, Sherman Minton: New Deal Senator, Cold War Justice (1997); and William F. Radcliff, Sherman Minton: Indiana's Supreme Court Justice (1996). See also Elizabeth A. Hull's unpublished dissertation, “Sherman Minton and the Cold War Court” (New School for Social Research, 1977).

For an excellent discussion of Minton's career prior to joining the Court, which also examines the origins of his judicial philosophy, see David N. Atkinson, “From New Deal Liberal to Supreme Court Conservative,” Washington University Law Quarterly (1975): 361. The most comprehensive account of Minton's tenure on the Court, written by one of his law clerks, is Harry L. Wallace, “Mr. Justice Minton—Hoosier Justice on the Supreme Court,” Indiana Law Journal 34 (1959): 145, 377. While perhaps overly sympathetic to Minton, Wallace ably assesses his contribution to the jurisprudence of the Vinson Court. David Atkinson has published several law review articles examining Minton's views on specific constitutional issues, the most perceptive of which is “Justice Sherman Minton and the Protection of Minority Rights,” Washington and Lee Law Review 34 (1977): 97.

Minton destroyed most of his papers, but a small collection of documents pertaining to his opinions is housed in the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.

Noteworthy Opinions

United States ex rel. Knauff v. Shaughnessy, 338 U.S. 537 (1950)

United States v. Rabinowitz, 339 U.S. 56 (1950)

International Brotherhood of Teamsters v. Hanke, 339 U.S. 470 (1950) (Dissent)

Adler v. Board of Ed. of the City of New York, 342 U.S. 485 (1952)

Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen v. Howard, 343 U.S. 768 (1952) (Dissent)

Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461 (1953) (Dissent)

Barrows v. Jackson, 346 U.S. 249 (1953)


Document Citation
Minton, Sherman, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 363 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18168-979410
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