Truman’s Supreme Court Justices
Harry Truman filled four vacancies on the Supreme Court during his eight years as president. Those he appointed included a Republican Senator, his Secretary of the Treasury, his Attorney General, and a judge from the Seventh District Court of Appeals. How did Truman decide who to appoint to the highest court in the land? And how did the Senate and press respond to President Truman’s Supreme Court nominees?
Harold Hitz Burton
Truman’s first opportunity to appoint a Supreme Court Justice came just 110 days into his presidency when Associate Justice Owen Roberts retired.
Less than 53 days later, on September 18, 1945, President Truman announced to the press that he had appointed Senator Harold Hitz Burton to the highest court in the land. President Truman knew the Republican Senator from Ohio from their time serving on the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program (the Truman Committee) together.
Many saw Truman’s choice of a Republican to fill a vacancy left by a Hoover appointee to the Court as a bipartisan gesture. The gesture of bipartisanship worked—the Senate unanimously confirmed Burton on the same day Truman appointed him. Justice Burton served on the Supreme Court until he retired on October 13, 1958.
Fred M. Vinson
Truman had the opportunity to make another appointment when Chief Justice Harlan Stone, a Roosevelt appointee, died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 22, 1946.Truman was aboard the Williamsburg, which was in the lower Chesapeake Bay, when he got the news.
As was so often the case, Truman looked to history to help him decide which course to take. “I ordered an immediate return to Washington and began to study the office of the Chief Justice,” Truman later recalled. “There had been only twelve appointments up to that time. Mine would be No. 13. So I began to canvas the background and records of the members of the high court.” Despite his efforts to find a nominee, “No conclusion was reached.”
Eventually, Truman sought the advice of a retired former Chief Justice, Charles Evans Hughes. When he arrived at the White House, Hughes shared a list of Justices of the Supreme Court and judges on the various Courts of Appeals and State Courts he compiled with the president. After reviewing the list “one by one,” Hughes noted that “the Chief Justice of the United States should not only know the law but that he should understand politics and government.” Hughes then came to a conclusion of who the president should appoint. “You have a Secretary of the Treasury who has been a Congressman, a Judge of the Court of Appeal, and an executive officer in President Roosevelt’s and your cabinets.”
Truman also consulted Owen Roberts, the recently-retired Supreme Court justice he had just replaced, about potential nominees. Like Hughes, Roberts brought a list of potential nominees to the president. “We went over very nearly the same list that Mr. Hughes and I had used,” Truman recalled, before “Justice Roberts came up with exactly the same recommendation as Justice Hughes had made.”
With a choice in mind, President Truman approached his Secretary of the Treasury, Fred M. Vinson, to see “if he’d accept an appointment as Chief Justice if it were offered to him.” Truman recalled Vinson saying that “any man who had been in the law would jump at such an offer and of course he’d take it if he had the chance.” According to Truman, “No further conversation took place.”
At 4pm that day, June 6, 1946, President Truman announced to the press that he was “going to make Fred Vinson Chief Justice of the United States.” “Would you mind saying when you decided on Vinson,” a reporter asked. “About an hour and a half ago,” Truman replied. “We’re getting it hot, then,” the reporter responded. “Right off the griddle,” Truman quipped.
Fourteen days later, on June 20, 1946, the Senate confirmed Vinson by a voice vote. Four days later, Vinson took the oath of office as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Vinson served until his death on September 8, 1953. He is the last Chief Justice nominated by a Democratic President to be confirmed.
Tom C. Clark
Truman’s third appointment came after Justice Frank Murphy died on July 19, 1949. Like his appointment of the Chief Justice, Truman turned to someone he knew from his administration: Tom C. Clark.
Truman knew Clark well. In June 1945, Truman appointed Clark Attorney General. Clark had joined President Truman as he campaigned for president in 1948. Truman praised Clark from the rear platform of a train during a campaign stop in Austin, Texas.
“Then there’s Tom Clark, the Attorney General of the United States, appointed by me. This Attorney General from Texas I think will go down in history as one of the great of the Attorneys General of the United States. And do you know why? Because he’s working all the time for constitutional Government and for the support of the Bill of Rights, in spite of the fact that this Republican Congress is trying to tear up the Bill of Rights.”
Clark held Truman in a similarly high regard. “I was strong for Mr. Truman; I thought he would do a terrific job as President,” Clark noted in his oral history at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.
Unlike Truman’s previous appointments to the Supreme Court, his choice of Clark drew criticism. The close political friendship between Truman and Clark led many to level charges of cronyism. A New York Times editorial asserted that Truman’s appointment of “a personal and political friend with no judicial experience and few demonstrated qualifications” was “a strange contrast to the President’s high ideals.” The Los Angeles Times described Clark as “a useful political servant to the Presidential master who appointed him to the court.” Even Harold Ickes, former Secretary of the Interior who had served under Roosevelt and Truman, criticized Truman’s choice of Clark to replace Justice Murphy. “President Truman has not ‘elevated’ Tom C. Clark to the Supreme Court,” he charged, “he has degraded the Court.”
Despite the public and private critiques of Truman’s choice, the Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed Clark on August 18, 1949. Only eight Republicans voted “no.” Justice Clark served until he retired in June of 1967, longer than any of Truman’s four appointees to the Supreme Court.
Truman’s final appointment to the Supreme Court came after Justice Wiley Blount Rutledge, Jr. died on September 10, 1949. Five days later, Truman announced to the press, “The Honorable Sherman Minton will be the United States Supreme Court Justice. I will appoint him, and as soon as the Senate confirms him, he will be the Justice.” Minton, a Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh District, had served with Truman in the Senate. Like Burton, Minton was part of the Truman Committee.
Following President Truman’s announcement, members of the White House Press Corps asked the president eleven questions. Not a single question was about Truman’s nomination of Minton to the Supreme Court.
A lack of questions did not mean the press supported Truman’s choice, however. The New York Times, The New Republic, and others questioned Truman’s choice to appoint a political friend to the Supreme Court.
Senators also opposed Minton’s nomination. Senator William Jenner (R-IN) led the charge to bring Minton before the Senate for hearings before confirming Truman’s nominee. Jenner’s charge failed. The judiciary committee voted 9 to 2 to excuse Minton from what the Chicago Daily Tribune described as “the ‘embarrassment’ of questioning on his past record.”
On October 4, 1949, the Republican-controlled Senate confirmed Minton by a vote of 48 to 16. On October 12, 1949, Minton took the oath of office. He served until October 15, 1956 when he retired due to ill health.
Once on the Supreme Court, the Justices Truman nominated helped decide some critical cases in U.S. History. In 1952, Truman’s appointees were evenly split in their ruling on Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company v. Sawyer (“The Steel Seizure Case”). Two years later, Justices Burton, Clark, and Minton were part of the unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The longest-serving justice Truman appointed, Tom C. Clark, was part of key Supreme Court decisions on gathering and using evidence, redistricting, requiring prayer in public institutions, the absolute right of defendants in criminal cases to have counsel, libel, contraception, and what became known as Miranda Rights.
Contributed by Mary McMurray, director of The White House Decision Center and a Ph.D. Candidate in history at the University of Kansas.