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A Review of A Recent Political Biography of Chief Justice Fred Vinson


Friday, May 3, 2002

James St. Clair & Linda Gugin, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson of Kentucky: A Political Biography (University Press of Kentucky 2002)

Fred Vinson served in every branch of the federal government and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1946 until his death in 1953. Yet Vinson is remembered today not for the opinions he wrote, but instead for what his death is said to have allowed: the appointment of Earl Warren as Chief Justice, and the resulting unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Our collective memory of Vinson, however, is faulty in important respects. As James St. Clair and Linda Gugin demonstrate in Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson of Kentucky: A Political Biography, Vinson did much more for his country than die.

The Man Who Became Chief Justice

Fred Vinson was born in Louisa, Kentucky in 1890. He grew up in a house on the town courthouse square; excelled in academics and athletics, quarterbacking the 1906 Louisa High School football team to an undefeated season; and eventually attended Centre College and Law School.

After graduation, Vinson practiced law in Ashland, Kentucky from 1911 until his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1924. Vinson served as a Congressman for six terms. His tenure was distinguished by staunch support for veterans and tobacco, as well as expertise in tax matters.

In 1938, Vinson was appointed to the D.C. Circuit. His judicial opinions there revealed a tendency to defer to the legislature, to side with the government in criminal cases, and to hew sharply to precedent.

In 1943, Roosevelt pressed Vinson into wartime service, first as Director of the Office of Economic Stabilization. Vinson subsequently held three other Executive Branch positions, including Secretary of the Treasury under Truman (they had become good friends after Truman became President in 1945). According to the authors, Truman especially valued Vinson's ability to broker peace while serving as an advisor.

It appears that this peacemaking quality, above all others, led to Vinson's appointment to the Supreme Court as Chief Justice in 1946, after Harlan Fiske Stone died. At that time, the Supreme Court was not held in high regard. This was due, in part, to a number of conflicts on the Court, including a bitter personal dispute between Hugo Black and Robert H. Jackson. Unfortunately, despite Vinson's best efforts, those conflicts did not abate during his tenure.

An Important Portrait of a Transitional Court

The authors have provided a careful and clearly written biography that relies on a familiar combination of primary sources (including Vinson's papers) and secondary sources (including contemporaneous newspaper articles, as well as more recent scholarly works on the Court). Their goal is to situate Vinson in historical and personal context, and they succeed in doing so - creating, in the process, a favorable and sympathetic portrait of a devoted public servant.

Although Vinson himself is likely to continue to dwell in relative obscurity, this biography is interesting for several reasons. First, it provides an account of the Supreme Court during a transitional period - the period between the "Lochner era," when the Court was expansive in its protection of business interests, and the Warren Court, when the Court was considered "activist" for its decisions emphasizing the protection of individual constitutional rights.

Indeed, the biography reminds us that, in some ways, for the Court, the more things change, the more they stay the same. In recent history, Bush v. Gore has been the starkest reminder of the Court's fractured politics. Yet this was far from the first fracture in the Court's history.

St. Clair and Gugin recount the disputes between - among others - Jackson and Black, and Vinson and Felix Frankfurter. They also note the proliferation of concurring and dissenting opinions during Vinson's tenure. In so doing, they remind us that one inevitable feature of the Court is personal and political disagreement among the Justices.

The biography also shows, however, that there are some distinctions with a difference in the modern culture of the Court. Notably, except for the occasional suggestion by President Clinton that he would appoint a political figure such as Bruce Babbitt to the Court, there no longer is political crossover from the legislature or the executive branch in Supreme Court appointments. Instead, the Court is staffed with judges from the lower courts.

Furthermore, Vinson's close relationship with Truman - Vinson continued to meet with Truman socially, and provide advice to the President, even after he joined the Court - would cause considerable controversy today.

Vinson and Brown v. Board of Education: How the Conventional Wisdom Erred

What about the conventional wisdom about Vinson's legacy - the idea that his death enabled the Brown decisions and school desegregation? The authors show that this idea originated with Felix Frankfurter, who served with Vinson as a Justice, and continued on with Frankfurter's law clerks (notably Philip Elman, who worked in the Solicitor General's office at the time of Vinson's death) and associates. They also show that this conventional wisdom may have been in error.

Citing the work of Georgetown Law Professor Mark Tushnet, the authors provide a different account of the relationship between Vinson's death and the advent of the era of desegregation with Brown. They suggest that Vinson was opposed to segregation but wanted to end it on a gradual basis and thus, even with Vinson as Chief Justice, the Court ultimately could have reached a unanimous decision in Brown.

The authors also afford some insight into Vinson as a man - and an admirable one. They demonstrate that in all of his tours of public duty - as a legislator, as an administrator, and as a judge - Vinson worked hard and remained humble. He also valued public service for its own sake, rather than as a means to a more lucrative end. If, as expected, a vacancy opens up on the Supreme Court before the next presidential election, neither the Court nor the country would be ill-served by the appointment of a Justice who shares Vinson's personal traits.

Rodger D. Citron, a former editor of Writ, is an attorney in Washington, D.C.

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