When author Merle Miller asked him what his biggest mistake had been as president, Harry Truman replied, “Putting Tom Clark on the Supreme Court of the United States.” That comment, which appears in Miller’s book, “Plain Speaking,” seemed to surprise Miller, who expected he might “have something new to say about dropping the Bomb” or some other topic.
As a senator, Truman supported President Franklin Roosevelt’s “court-packing” plan, which Roosevelt proposed in response to the Supreme Court’s opposition to his New Deal legislation. In his memoirs, Truman wrote there was “nothing sacrosanct about the number nine.” In fact, Congress sets the number of justices on the Supreme Court.
During the 1930s, Truman attended weekly teas hosted by Justice Louis Brandeis. As Frances Howell Rudko observed in “Truman’s Court: A Study in Judicial Restraint,” Truman shared Brandeis’ views on the “dangers of big business.”
Shortly after becoming president, Truman wrote that the courts should neither “dabble in policy” nor “read law school theories into the law and policy laid down by the Congress.”
Truman appointed four men to serve on the Supreme Court: Fred Vinson, Harold Burton, Sherman Minton and Tom Clark. Vinson, whom Truman first appointed as secretary of the treasury, served as chief justice from 1946 until his death in 1953. Burton, an Ohio Republican and former U.S. Senator, served as an associate justice from 1945 to 1958. Minton, a former U.S. Senator from Indiana, served as an associate justice from 1949 to 1956. Clark, whom Truman first appointed as attorney general, served on the Court from 1949 to 1967. Candidates for the Supreme Court were not “vetted” by legal organizations and lobbyists as they are today, so Truman appointed men that he personally knew and trusted. Truman had known Burton and Minton in the Senate, and he played poker with Vinson; critics accused Truman of cronyism. According to an essay that appears in Richard Kirkendall (ed.), “The Truman Encyclopedia,” Truman did not want to appoint a woman to the Court because he believed that male justices wouldn’t want to work with a female.
The Vinson Court featured important divisions in judicial philosophy. On the one hand was the judicial activism of Hugo Black. On the other hand was the view of Felix Frankfurter, an advocate of judicial restraint. The Vinson Court also was characterized by conflicts in personality between Black and Robert Jackson, who frequently clashed.
In his book, “Justices and Presidents,” Henry Abraham observed that Truman’s Supreme Court appointments were “undistinguished.” Still, the Vinson Court considered important cases in areas such as civil rights and civil liberties. In Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), the Supreme Court ruled that state enforcement of a racially restrictive housing covenant violated the Fourteenth Amendment. In Dennis v. United States (1951), a First Amendment case, the Court upheld the convictions of American Communist leaders jailed under the Smith Act for advocating for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Although the Supreme Court did not decide the landmark desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, until the Eisenhower Administration, in 1954, the Vinson Court heard the first set of oral arguments.
In the area of executive power, the Vinson Court made perhaps its most lasting and significant impact. In 1952, during the Korean War, Truman ordered the seizure of steel mills by the federal government in response to a labor strike. He put his secretary of commerce in charge of the mills, citing his own inherent constitutional power to do this and arguing that the labor stoppage threatened the production of armaments needed in Korea. In the case Youngstown Sheet and Tube v. Sawyer, the Supreme Court voted 6-3 that Truman’s action violated the Constitution. Truman was furious at the decision. Clark voted against Truman in the steel seizure case, a decision that perhaps caused Truman to consider Clark’s appointment to have been his biggest mistake.
– Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.