Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson

Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson joined the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 1946, replacing Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone. Vinson was born on January 22, 1890 in the small city of Louisa near the eastern edge of Kentucky. He graduated from Centre College in 1909 and stayed there for his legal studies. After he received a law degree in 1911, Vinson entered private practice in his hometown. He briefly held the position of City Attorney there.

Vinson enlisted in the U.S. Army during the First World War. After the war, he served as Commonwealth Attorney for the 32nd Judicial District of Kentucky in the early 1920s. Vinson joined the U.S. House of Representatives in January 1924 to fill a vacancy. He would win two more Congressional elections before losing in 1928. However, Vinson returned to the House in 1931 and stayed there for several more years.

At the end of 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Vinson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He held that position until 1943, when he resigned to become the Director of the Office of Economic Stabilization during the Second World War. In the summer of 1945, Vinson became U.S. Secretary of the Treasury in the cabinet of President Harry Truman. He held this position for less than a year.

On June 6, 1946, President Truman nominated Vinson to the Chief Justice seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on June 20, and he took the judicial oath four days later. Vinson would spend the last seven years of his life on the Court.

Vinson wrote for a majority of the Court in most of his opinions, but he penned a memorable dissent in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer in 1952. This separation of powers case involved the seizure of steel mills by President Truman to further Korean War efforts. A majority of the Court felt that Truman lacked the authority to seize the steel mills, but Vinson argued that the President should have flexibility in responding to emergencies.

In a handful of other opinions, Vinson struck blows against racial discrimination. Writing for a unanimous Court in Sweatt v. Painter, he found that the Fourteenth Amendment prevented the University of Texas from refusing to admit an African-American applicant to its law school when the law school that Texas offered for African-Americans did not provide an equal education. In McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, Vinson likewise wrote for a unanimous Court. He ruled that an African-American student at the University of Oklahoma "must receive the same treatment at the hands of the state as students of other races." Vinson also wrote in Shelley v. Kraemer that courts cannot enforce racially restrictive covenants affecting real estate.

Vinson died on September 8, 1953 in Washington, D.C. and was buried in his hometown of Louisa. Chief Justice Earl Warren replaced him on the Supreme Court.

Selected Opinions by Chief Justice Vinson:

U.S. v. Reynolds (1953)

Topic: Immigration & National Security

Even the most compelling necessity cannot overcome a claim of the military secrets privilege if the court is ultimately satisfied that military secrets are at stake.

Dennis v. U.S. (1951)

Topic: Free Speech

Courts must ask whether the gravity of the evil, discounted by its improbability, justifies such invasion of free speech as is necessary to avoid the danger.

Feiner v. New York (1951)

Topic: Free Speech

When a speaker passes the bounds of argument or persuasion and undertakes incitement to riot, the police are not powerless to prevent a breach of the peace.

McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950)

Topic: Equal Protection

Having been admitted to a state-supported graduate school, an African-American student must receive the same treatment at the hands of the state as students of other races.

Sweatt v. Painter (1950)

Topic: Equal Protection

An African-American student was required to be admitted to a state law school when he was denied admission solely because of his race, and the legal education offered him at a separate law school established by the state for African-Americans was not substantially equal to the legal education offered at the state law school.

Shapiro v. U.S. (1948)

Topic: Government Agencies

The privilege against compelled self-incrimination that exists as to private papers cannot be maintained in relation to records required by law to be kept in order that there may be suitable information of transactions that are the appropriate subjects of governmental regulation, and the enforcement of restrictions validly established.

Shelley v. Kraemer (1948)

Topic: Property Rights & Land Use; Equal Protection

Private agreements to exclude persons of a designated race or color from the use or occupancy of real estate for residential purposes do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, but it is violative of the Equal Protection Clause for state courts to enforce them.

Crane v. Commissioner (1947)

Topic: Taxes

The amount realized on a sale of property for cash subject to an existing mortgage is the amount of the cash realized plus the amount of the mortgage, even though the seller had acquired the property subject to the mortgage, which they never assumed, and the buyer neither assumed nor paid the mortgage.