Truman Names a Chief Justice—Fred M. Vinson
One decision continued to follow another from the packed Court, each of them designed to break down further the constitutional bars against growing usurpations by the Washington government. The remaining years of the Roosevelt regime and those of the Truman “Fair Deal” saw generally a continuation of the same type of Supreme Court appointments and, with one or two exceptions, the same type of major decisions.
President Truman made four appointments to the Supreme Court—Justice Burton, Chief Justice Vinson, Justices Clark and Minton. Burton, Clark, and Minton we will consider a little later. Fred M. Vinson was named Chief Justice in 1946 to replace Harlan F. Stone. He was Truman’s Secretary of the Treasury at the time he was named to the Court. He had been elected to Congress seven times from Kentucky and had held high wartime posts under Roosevelt and Truman. In the interval between his congressional service and his job as Director of Economic Stabilization, he had gained some judicial experience, from 1938 to 1943, as a member of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. But that was not Truman’s main reason for making him Chief Justice. Vinson was named to see if he couldn’t bring some order and dignity out of the dissension, petty bickering, and snarling among the justices, which had already broken out in the press.
At the time of Vinson’s appointment, with the exception of one earlier Truman appointee, Justice Burton, every member of the Supreme Court had received his appointment at the hands of Franklin Roosevelt. They were all pretty much in the same ideological camp—the left. Of course the gradations ranged from pale pink, right across to just this side of deep red. One would have supposed that such ideological “liberals,” now ensconced in the rarefied judicial atmosphere of the Court, with the power in their hands to make or break a great republic, at least could have handled smoothly their personal relations with each other. Somewhere the gods must be laughing at the spectacle of men who would like to see all America become one great state-controlled mass and then fit her neatly into a beautiful collectivist world—at the spectacle of such men being unable to get along with each other. After all, there were only nine of them—nine out of the two and one half billion people to be poured into one great mold.
Justices Jackson and Black were having a feud—which we will go into a little more fully later. Justice Frankfurter disapproved of Justice Murphy’s night-clubbing. Justice Douglas and Justice Frankfurter were making sneering remarks about each other. Justice Reed couldn’t always be kept in line by Justice Frankfurter, who one day, through the open door of his office, could be heard on the telephone saying to Justice Reed: “Now, Stanley, don’t let your vote be influenced by those b------s.”
Fred Vinson was known as a great compromiser. He was also a congenial and jovial man with a highly developed sense of humor. It was evidently Truman’s hope that he would have a tranquilizing influence on the Court and at least quiet some of the Court’s household rows that were seeping into the press. By the time he died in 1953, a calm seemed to have settled on the Court. Whether this was due to Vinson’s influence, or whether the protagonists, as they grew older, also grew less contentious, is not known.
Vinson, of course, was a New Dealer, though not quite so rabid a variety as Douglas, Black, and Murphy. On the Court he sometimes voted with these leaders of the far “liberal” wing and sometimes with the not-so-far “liberal” group made up of Jackson, Burton, and Reed—and occasionally of Frankfurter, who was busy applying a slippery polish to the bench in his slides from one side to the other.
Toward the end of the Truman regime, it became the fashion among “liberals” to bemoan the “change” in the Court from the great days of the Roosevelt justices. The inconsistency involved here, since the majority of the justices were still Roosevelt appointees, did not bother the “liberals.” Their disappointment stemmed chiefly from the fact that the Court as a whole wasn’t moving fast enough to the far left to suit them and that, in a few decisions, it actually seemed to be moving back a little toward the Constitution. The “liberals”—never ones for being particular about their use of words—began calling Vinson, Reed, and Minton conservatives and even reactionaries. Minton was a New Deal wheel-horse, as we shall see later, and he, Reed and Vinson were just as good New Dealers as the rest.
Then, in 1952, the “liberals” were set back on their heels—only momentarily, of course—by a decision in which the “liberal” justices seemed to give them a slap in the face and in which they found the “reactionaries,” Vinson, Reed, and Minton, on their side. This was the famous case in which a majority of the Court invalidated Harry Truman’s seizure of the steel mills.
The United Steelworkers Union of the CIO, then headed by Philip Murray, threatened to strike the steel industry while the Korean War was still in progress. Steel production would have come to a standstill. The President, because of his dislike of the Taft-Hartley Act, refused to invoke one of its provisions which would have kept the Steelworkers in the mills for a period of 80 days while a fact-finding board investigated their wage dispute with the employers. Instead, in April, Truman seized the steel mills in the name of the government. The steel companies challenged this high-handed action and District Judge David A. Pine issued an order directing Truman to give the mills back to their rightful owners. The case reached the Supreme Court with unusual speed and in June, by a six-to-three decision, the Court upheld Pine’s order. The union immediately called the men out on strike.
The country had been aroused not only by President Truman’s autocratic act in seizing the mills, but also by the unpatriotic attitude of the steelworkers’ union—or the union bosses—in threatening to strike a vital industry while the country was at war. For the moment, it looked to the general public as though the Supreme Court was at long last returning to its historic function in protecting the people and the states against unconstitutional seizures of power.
Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority decision for the Court. His words—which gave momentary encouragement to those praying for the return of constitutional government in America—have a strange and hollow sound today in view of subsequent actions of a Court on which Justice Black remained a leading figure. He declared that President Truman had violated the Constitution by usurping the legislative powers reserved to Congress. And he said: “The Constitution did not subject this law-making power of Congress to Presidential or military supervision or control.” Justice Black and his concurring colleagues have conveniently short memories. If only he and they could have remembered his words two brief years later, when they rendered a decision in which the Court usurped the legislative powers reserved to the Congress!
In the jubilation over this seeming proof that in America the law was still greater than the President, it was overlooked that the five concurring justices each went to the unusual length of writing his own concurring opinion. As Arthur Krock (New York Times, June 8, 1952) pointed out some days later—when the decision had been all but forgotten in the battle between the striking steel-workers and the employers—these concurring opinions did not close the door to future drastic presidential action taken without a specific law of Congress in unforeseen crises. They also left the door open in the future for the seizure of individual plants—maybe one after another—on a sort of temporary basis until the President could get Congress to approve or regulate his action—or disapprove it. It seems the mistake Harry Truman made was in seizing the steel industry all at once—he should have grabbed one company at a time!
Of particular interest, however, was Chief Justice Vinson’s dissent in the steel case. He, together with Justices Reed and Minton, upheld Truman’s right to seize the mills. And, as coming events cast their shadow before, we would do well to ponder the Chief Justice’s reasoning in this case. We were at war in Korea. But this was not a United States war, the Chief Justice said (although we supplied all the funds, all the matériel, and most of the men). It was a United Nations war. We were a member of the United Nations. We, the United States, had an obligation to carry out United Nations mandates. Therefore the United States—just one cog in the great United Nations wheel—was obliged to do anything necessary to the prosecution of the United Nations war in Korea. Therefore, the President had a right to seize the steel mills in order to fulfill our obligation to the United Nations. Disentangled from its legal obfuscations, that was Chief Justice Vinson’s reasoning.
Of course, what had really happened in the steel case was that, once again, the Supreme Court had been reading the newspapers—much more carefully than the general public. And even the “liberals” could have saved themselves their momentary dismay over the seeming about-face of their heroes on the Court if they had watched the congressional news a little more closely. Pending before the Armed Services Committee of the House was a bill sponsored by Representative Howard W. Smith of Virginia covering strikes in defense plants. As well as providing for government seizure of mills and industries, it called for seizure of labor unions. Following the Court’s decision in the steel case, the bill was forgotten.
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