Vol. 14 No.11 (November 2004), pp.833-836

THE VINSON COURT: JUSTICES, RULINGS AND LEGACY, by Michal R. Belknap. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004. 333pp. Cloth.  $65.00. ISBN: 1-57607-21-0

Reviewed by Caryl Lynn Segal, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Texas at Arlington.  Email: csegal@uta.edu

“Fred Vinson was not a great chief justice. Nor was the Supreme Court he headed from 1946-1953 a great Court” (p.xi).  So begins the Preface to Michal R. Belknap’s extraordinary study of a court to which few give more than passing consideration. But to a large extent reputation of the Vinson Court has suffered through the years because of comparison to the Warren Court which succeeded it. It was not a long-lasting court, only seven years, but it issued a number of decisions that take on added interest in the current political climate.

The Vinson Court sat during the time of the House Un-American Activities investigation of the movie industry and the subsequent blacklisting of many notable writers. Its terms also coincided with the witch hunts of Senator Joe McCarthy. Fear of Communists could be analogized to today’s fear of terrorists.

When the Vinson Court was called upon to weigh rights of citizens against needs of government, the Court backed the executive nearly 100% of the time and gave great deference to Congress.  This experience is summed up perfectly by the author when he writes that the Justices “also believed that unelected judges should not use their power to thwart the initiatives of politically responsible legislators and executive officials. . . .  Because of their concern for national security and their tendency to uphold whatever actions the government considered necessary to protect it” (p.xii), the Court upheld as constitutional many statutes which severely limited freedom of speech in the name of national security.  A prime example is Chief Justice Vinson’s opinion in DENNIS v. US (1951), in which established First Amendment interpretation was turned upside down to achieve the desired result of upholding the conviction of Communist Party leaders.

Sections of the Patriot Act passed since 9-11 are also seen by some as infringing on the rights of citizens. As these issues are raised and the Rehnquist Court issues its opinions, we will be in a better position to compare the similarities and/or differences between the Vinson and Rehnquist Courts in terms of the balance they strike between national security and constitutional rights.

The decisions in Rasul (2004) and Hamdi (2004) regarding detainees at Guantanamo Bay suggest that the Rehnquist Court will be less accepting of executive and legislative actions that deprive rights, but it remains to be seen whether a line in the sand has been drawn and where it goes.

The Vinson Court included Roosevelt appointees, Justices Douglas, Black, and [*834] Frankfurter, all considered outstanding jurists. Reading the opinions in which they agreed and those in which they dissented from one another fleshes out the portrait of these men. 

Justice Frankfurter, for example, tried throughout his time on the Court to convince other Justices to agree with his notion that the Court should defer to the legislative branch. Justice Black believed that the Constitution should be followed literally. Thus, because the framers wrote that government shall pass no law infringing First Amendment rights, Black disagreed with any exceptions. In many ways I see parallels between Black’s literalism and that of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Belknap begins his look at the Vinson Court by considering the historical period in which it sat and the politics of presidential appointment. Eleven men served during the seven years of the Vinson Court, and President Truman appointed four of its members: Vinson, Harold Burton, Tom Clark, and Sherman Minton. All four were, according to Belknap, chosen for political dedication and loyalty to the President. Legal historians refer to the four as Truman cronies who have been given relatively poor ratings as Justices.

The second chapter provides a biographical overview of the Vinson Court members, beginning with the Chief Justice. Vinson was a congenial individual who considered the needs of the other Justices. He sought to reduce the workload, from 200 written opinions per term typical of the 1930s, to 100, believing that overwork was partly responsible for the untimely death of Justice Rutledge. He also co-opted opinion assignment, making 86% of them himself, by bending to the will of the majority. He did not, however, hog the opinions but wanted an equitable distribution.  He also rewarded Justices who wrote efficiently and quickly by assigning more opinions to them.

While serving on the Court of Appeals, he was a strong advocate of Fourth Amendment protections, but was inexplicably unsympathetic to these claims as Chief Justice. He consistently rejected claims of the denial of right to counsel as well.

Vinson lacked the intellect to command the respect of some colleagues, and, given his lack of leadership skills, he was unable to overcome the deep philosophical and personal disagreements that existed among the Justices. One result was an unusually low rate of unanimity—during his first term only 36% of the cases were decided unanimously, and in his final term, the mark was a mere 19%, a record low. Many decisions were 5-4, and many of those produced no majority opinion.

In cases presenting issues of presidential authority, the Court upheld executive actions with one major exception.  Indeed, the Vinson Court’s most memorable decision was YOUNGSTOWN SHEET AND TUBE COMPANY v. SAWYER (1952), in which it declared that Truman lacked the constitutional authority to seize the steel industry. Sometimes forgotten is that the holding stated Congress had the authority to seize private property; the President could not do so without a war emergency declaration issued by Congress. [*835]

The concurring opinion in YOUNGSTOWN by Justice Robert Jackson is used to this day as the analytical framework within which separation-of-power questions are analyzed. Although he is rarely named in the same breath as Justices Black, Frankfurter, and Douglas, some of Jackson’s opinions have stood the test of time. He is well regarded for his definition of the outer limits of the power of Congress under the Commerce Clause, and has often been quoted by members of the Rehnquist Court.

Moreover, political scientists often overlook the fact that it was the Vinson Court that began to chip away at the separate-but-equal rule by outlawing segregation in interstate transportation, and also struck down racially restrictive covenants in real estate deeds. Moreover, SWEATT v. PAINTER (1950), which found that the Texas separate but equal law school did not provide an equal education, was a Vinson Court decision.

Much has been written about the Vinson Court members being divided on BROWN and that they ordered a rehearing of the arguments in the 1953 Term. Belknap indicates that the division centered on whether PLESSEY should be overturned. With Vinson’s death and Warren’s appointment to fill the Chief Justice position, the Court ultimately delivered a unanimous opinion that, interestingly, did not explicitly overturn PLESSEY. Thus, one must conclude that the basic inequality inherent in the separate but equal concept that formed the basis for the SWEATT opinion would very likely also been found in BROWN, even if not unanimously, if the Vinson Court had decided the case.

Although civil liberties often did not prevail during the Vinson Court years, one cannot overlook the fact that incorporation of the Bill of Rights via the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment moved briskly forward. GITLOW (1925) NEAR (1931) PALKO (1937), DE JONGE (1937) and CANTWELL (1940) had all incorporated some rights; but they all represent a process of selective incorporation. In fact, these first amendment cases all rested on the “preferred position” doctrine. The Vinson Court took another approach.

It was Justice Black in EVERSON (1947, 17-18) who stated that “the Establishment Clause had been intended to ‘erect a wall of separation between Church and State.’” The opinion went on to say that the provision of funds for transportation had been neutrally applied and thus was not being used to further religion or interfere with the free exercise of religion. Interestingly Justice Black’s opinion is contradictory in itself because, if there is a high wall of separation, reimbursement to parents for transportation to parochial school should be seen as constituting direct aid to religious education.

Chapter Three, Major Decisions, and Chapter Four, Legacy and Impact, are filled with insights into the decisions in a wide variety of areas, and some of these issues will be coming before the Rehnquist Court in its 2004 term.

The book is obviously of benefit to any who study or teach the court system and Supreme Court decision making. This is a well written book that manages the often difficult task of explaining not only [*836] the philosophies of the Justices but also the sentiment of the times.


BROWN v BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 US 483 (1954).

CANTWELL v. CONNECTICUT, 310 US 296 (1940).

DE JONGE v. OREGON, 299 U. S. 353 (1937).

DENNIS v. US, 341 US 494 (1951).


GITLOW v. NEW YORK, 268 U.S. 652 (1925).

HAMDI v. RUMSFELD, 124 S. Ct. 2633 (2004).

NEAR v. MINNESOTA, 283 U. S. 697 (1931).

PALKO v. CONNECTICUT, 302 US 319 (1937).

PLESSY v. FERGUSON, 163 US 537 (1896).

RASUL v. BUSH, 124 S. Ct. 2686 (2004).

SWEATT v. PAINTER , 339 US 629 (1950).



© Copyright 2004 by the author, Caryl Lynn Segal.