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Justice Vinson participated in 783 cases.
Joined with Majority689
Concurring in Judgment3
Did Not Participate14
Judgment of the Court3

Vinson, Frederick Moore

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Birth: January 22, 1890, Louisa, Kentucky.

Education: Kentucky Normal College, 1908; Centre College, A.B., 1909; LL.B., 1911.

Official Positions: Commonwealth attorney, Thirty-second Judicial District of Kentucky, 1921–1924; U.S. representative, 1924–1929, 1931–1938; judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, 1938–1943; director, Office of Economic Stabilization, 1943–1945; administrator, Federal Loan Agency, 1945; director, Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, 1945; secretary of the Treasury, 1945–1946.

Supreme Court Service: Nominated chief justice by President Harry S. Truman, June 6, 1946, to replace Harlan F. Stone, who had died; confirmed by the Senate, June 20, 1946, by a voice vote; took judicial oath June 24, 1946; served until September 8, 1953; replaced by Earl Warren, nominated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Death: September 8, 1953, Washington, D.C.

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Frederick Moore Vinson
Noteworthy Opinions

Frederick Moore Vinson

Fred Vinson was educated at Kentucky Normal School, obtained a law degree in 1911 from the law department of Centre College, and subsequently practiced law in Louisa and Ashland, Kentucky, including brief service as Ashland's city attorney and commonwealth attorney. In 1924 he was elected to the House of Representatives from Kentucky's Ninth District. He was defeated in 1928 but reelected to the House in 1930 and kept the seat in ensuing elections. Vinson was a powerful member of the House Ways and Means Committee and was chosen chairman of its tax subcommittee.

His judicial career began in May 1938, when President Franklin Roosevelt named him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In 1942 Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone gave him the additional job of chief judge of the wartime U.S. Emergency Court of Appeals, a court especially created to clear the backlog of war-related cases. Vinson resigned from the bench in May 1943 to become director of the Economic Stabilization Board. He then held a series of increasingly responsible executive positions. In March 1945 he was the federal loan administrator; from April to July, the director of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion; and then secretary of the Treasury. Before he became chief justice, the kind and affable Fred Vinson had exercised federal legislative, judicial, and executive powers.

Legal acumen and jurisprudential scholarship played no role in President Harry Truman's nomination of Vinson to be the nation's thirteenth chief justice; rather, the motivating factors were political philosophy and Vinson's personality—he was friendly, sociable, humorous, patient, relaxed, and respectful of others' views. Truman hoped that these attributes would unite the fractious Supreme Court. Given the personalities and intellectual strengths of associate justices such as Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, and Robert Jackson, just reducing tension and dissension on the Court would have been a formidable task. Vinson, then fifty-six years old, did not succeed.

Any evaluation of Vinson's seven-year Supreme Court tenure must, therefore, rest on his judicial opinions, which were nourished by an intellect that eschewed theoretical grandeur. Instead, he thought in terms of specific problems and formulated responses designed to meet present contingencies, not unforeseen and unpredictable future events. His mind, ideas, and jurisprudence were, in this sense, pragmatic. Whether a longer tenure would have changed that judicial posture is doubtful. Vinson's opinions are devoid of any trace of John Marshall's statesmanship or Oliver Wendell Holmes's rhetoric. Moreover, their small number may render any such comparison grossly unfair. He was not the most insignificant chief justice—that title might be accorded to John Rutledge or Oliver Ells-worth—but Vinson's opinions have virtually disappeared.

In the realm of federal legislative powers, the lack of noteworthy opinions is not surprising, because Vinson was aligned with the victors. Following the 1937 “Court-packing” plan, the Court conceded virtually unlimited scope to the congressional commerce power. Sustaining the validity of economic legislation did not, therefore, require or permit memorable or original judicial opinions. It did, however, enable Vinson to endorse the concept, and promote the possibility, of national, rather than fragmented, power and policies. Expansion, not contraction, of the commerce clause was a constant refrain of Vinson' s opinions. That concept is particularly evident even where Congress remained silent. On this aspect of the commerce clause's federalist dimensions, Vinson was hostile toward any state burdens on interstate or foreign commerce. Between 1937 and 1946 the Court had allowed some state regulation and taxation to operate on such commerce. Reflecting an antipathy to state encroachments on federal government domains, Vinson was unwilling to concede their constitutionality. Only after elaborate scrutiny of national needs and interests balanced against local benefits was there a possibility that state regulations and taxes might not be invalidated. Cases such as Independent Warehouses v. Scheele (1947), Bob-Lo Excursion Co. v. Michigan (1948), and Breard v. Alexandria (1951) exemplify this Vinson approach.

Presidential and federal executive power also received Vinson's constitutional imprimatur, as exemplified in his dissent in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952). By a 6–3 majority, the Court held that President Truman possessed no power derived from the Constitution, either as chief executive or as commander in chief, to seize and operate privately owned steel mills. Without congressional authorization, the president's actions were unconstitutional. Even before that seizure occurred, but as chief justice, Vinson had privately advised Truman that in his opinion the Constitution permitted such a seizure, and Vinson restated that view in his dissent. The chief justice attributed to the framers an awareness “that there is real danger in Executive weakness.” Crises and emergencies clearly exposed not only this peril but also the corresponding need for near omnipotence for the executive. On Vinson's assessment, these factors coalesced when Truman directed the secretary of commerce to take possession and operate the plants and facilities of specified steel companies.

Given American military commitments in Korea, this presidential action to avert a steelworkers' strike came at a time when “vigor and initiative,” not “inertia,” were necessary. To Vinson, the reasons were obvious: a serious emergency existed, and the nation's vital interests included the continuing production of steel. Vinson's response to critics, including those justices who perceived unbridled executive power resulting in executive tyranny and autocracy, was emphatic: “Those who suggest that this is a case involving extraordinary powers should be mindful that these are extraordinary times.” For President Truman, Vinson's point “hit the nail right on the head.” Others, however, saw Vinson's dissent as proof that he, despite being elevated to the pinnacle of the Supreme Court, remained in spirit and deed ensconced in the other branches of the federal government.

Vinson's Bill of Rights and Fourteenth Amendment opinions reinforced this perception. The evidence here is indisputable: individuals and their constitutional rights were, for the chief justice, subordinate to federal and state powers. Within the context of a larger perspective—the previous history of Supreme Court decisions on such rights—his views may conform with, rather than deviate from, the predominant trend of constitutional law. The small number of civil rights cases decided during the Vinson years—Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), Hurd v. Hodge (1948), Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (1948), McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950), and Sweatt v. Painter (1950)—may represent an aberration. But for those ensnared in the cold war and McCarthyism hysteria, Vinson's tenure offered no protection against repressive congressional laws and committees, executive investigations, or criminal prosecutions.

The most notorious and, in terms of practical consequences, the most important Vinson opinion sustained, against First Amendment free speech challenges, the convictions of eleven U.S. Communist Party leaders, including Eugene Dennis. Their indictment under the 1940 Smith Act alleged a conspiracy to teach or advocate the forceful overthrow of the U.S. government and membership in an organization advocating such an overthrow. In his plurality opinion, Vinson transformed Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis's formulation and application of the clear and present danger test. The constitutionally protected realm of free speech could be legislatively invaded to the extent necessary to obviate dangers, provided its gravity and probability of occurring had been assessed.

Two immediate results ensued from Dennis v. United States (1951). First, the constitutionality of the Smith Act was upheld. Second, other federal prosecutions could and did successfully proceed against what government officials considered to be potentially subversive doctrines. Noncriminal sanctions and deprivations applied to Communists and others suspected of disloyalty were also constitutionally vindicated by Vinson's refutation of counterarguments premised on the Bill of Rights in cases such as American Communications Association v. Douds (1950), Bailey v. Richardson (1951), and Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee v. McGrath (1951).

To what extent did these opinions rest on Vinson's view of the necessity to sustain and defer to exercises of national and federal authority? Some relative indication can be gleaned from his First Amendment free speech decisions involving, via the Fourteenth Amendment, state laws and regulations. At least on some occasions, he was prepared to invalidate local ordinances to vindicate assertions of individual rights. This civil libertarian posture is revealed in Saia v. New York (1948), Niemotko v. Maryland (1951), and Kunz v. New York (1951). However, other cases, such as Kovacs v. Cooper (1949) and Feiner v. New York (1951), return Vinson's image to that of an authoritarian advocate.

In addition, within the criminal law context, despite some ambivalence, government interests in law enforcement, not individual rights and immunities, prevailed. This general stance is obvious in procedural and substantive criminal law issues in state and federal courts, where Vinson usually rejected Fourth Amendment claims, but the trend was not devoid of exceptions. Indeed, a 1940 Fourth Amendment Vinson opinion in the court of appeals (Nueslein v. District of Columbia) clearly indicated the possibility of such occurrences. Successful invocation of defendants' rights during the Vinson era are few, but do include Niemotko, Jennings v Illinois (1951), Fowler v. Rhode Island (1953), and Brock v. North Carolina (1953).

Even more tentative was Vinson's approach to cases under the First Amendment's establishment clause, which Everson v. Board of Education (1947) extended to the states. Two conclusions are obvious. First, Vinson was prepared to apply the Bill of Rights, at least to some extent, to the states with the consequential diminution of state authority and federalism implications. Second, Everson was only the beginning, not the end, of Supreme Court explorations among the religion clauses. Vinson's votes to allow school districts to reimburse parents for transporting their children to parochial schools in Everson, to invalidate a released time program in which the clergy taught religion in schools during school time in Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education (1948), and to uphold a program that provided students with religious instruction outside school premises in Zorach v. Clauson (1952) are, therefore, not reliable guides as to how his views concerning federal and state authority, individual rights, and the judicial function might eventually have coalesced to reveal his posture in this aspect of First Amendment jurisprudence.

In stark contrast, it is usually suggested that no such equivocation surrounded Vinson's use of constitutional law to eliminate racial discrimination. Three categories of cases testing the equal protection clause are involved. The first is the invalidation of racial restrictions on Japanese pertaining to landholding and fishing rights in Oyama v. California (1948) and Takahashi v. Fish and Game Commission (1948). Second are the cases involving restrictive covenants that prevented African Americans from buying houses in white neighborhoods. In Shelley v. Kraemer, Vinson spoke for the Court to hold that state court enforcement of such private racial covenants constituted state action forbidden by the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. In Hurd v. Hodge, Vinson also applied that decision to the District of Columbia.

Doctrinally, these cases are among Vinson's most interesting, complex, and adventurous opinions. Even so, it is doubtful whether they reveal any significant new dimension to his decisions or decision-making process. Indeed, Vinson made a conspicuous effort to locate Shelley within the parameters of previous state action cases and to see the state action concept as a rigid limitation on, rather than a malleable entrance to, Fourteenth Amendment rights. Significantly, Vinson dissented in Barrows v. Jackson (1953) when all the other justices held that a state court's award of damages for breach of a racial covenant infringed the equal protection clause.

The third category of racial discrimination cases in which Vinson participated is state-segregated graduate education. State action in Sipuel, McLaurin, and Sweatt unconstitutionally denied African American university students equal protection of the laws. In one respect, these decisions simultaneously pointed in antithetical directions: the separate but equal doctrine was not rejected or abandoned, but, as a practical matter, the application of a rigorous equal facilities test eliminated the maintenance of racial segregation in state graduate and professional schools. Ultimately, that tension would be broken in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), but by then Vinson was no longer on the Court.

Compared to other justices, including chief justices, Vinson wrote few opinions. Moreover, it has been suggested “that Vinson did all his ‘writing’ with his hands in his pockets, outlining the general approach to his clerk[s] and then suggesting but few revisions in the draft.” If that observation is correct, how and why he cast his vote in deciding cases may have been more influential and may be more revealing than his written opinions. A further impediment to his reputation is the unevenness of quality, in prose and legal analysis, among his opinions. At best, they were succinct and precise; their clarity was bereft of irrelevant erudition and relentlessly drove toward a seemingly inevitable result. The worst were vacuous. Fine distinctions and silent avoidance of precedents are their dominant characteristics.

All of Vinson's perspectives, however, gained sustenance from a single premise: authority, not freedom, ought to prevail when a choice had to be made. If, almost without exception, that choice dictated the constitutional validity of federal and state exercises of legislative, executive, and judicial powers, the result was to be celebrated as a victory for patriotism, not decried as a defeat of liberty. Whether or not Vinson's sentiments are endorsed, their promulgation has one virtue: the inevitable juxtaposition of the opposing view that mandates sacrificing the common good to individual rights and freedoms. That, especially for the Supreme Court, is the enduring American dilemma: when, where, and how majoritarianism or constitutionalism should be triumphant.


The Vinson papers are in the Margaret I. King Library at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. The only biography is James E. St. Clair and Linda C. Gugin, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson of Kentucky: A Political Biography (2002). Other examinations of Vinson include Francis A. Allen, “Chief Justice Vinson and the Theory of Constitutional Government: A Tentative Appraisal,” Northwestern University Law Review 49 (1954): 3; and John P. Frank, “Fred Vinson and the Chief Justiceship,” University of Chicago Law Review 21 (1954): 212. The most critical view of Vinson is Fred Rodell, Nine Men: A Political History of the Supreme Court from 1790 to 1955 (1955).

For analyses of the Vinson Court, see Melvin I. Urofsky, Division and Discord: The Supreme Court Under Stone and Vinson, 1941–1953 (1997); Jan Palmer, The Vinson Court Era: The Supreme Court's Conference Votes: Data and Analysis (1990); and Francis H. Rudko, Truman's Court: A Study in Judicial Restraint (1988).

For particular cases and issues, see Michal R. Belknap, Cold War Political Justice: The Smith Act, the Communist Party, and American Civil Liberties (1977); Maeva Marcus, Truman and the Steel Seizure Case: The Limits of Presidential Power (1977); and Clement E. Vose, Caucasians Only: The Supreme Court, the NAACP, and the Restrictive Covenant Cases (1967).

Noteworthy Opinions

Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948)

Hurd v. Hodge, 334 U.S. 24 (1948)

Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494 (1951)

Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952) (Dissent)

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


Document Citation
Vinson, Frederick Moore, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 566 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18170-979616
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