Justice Frederick Moore Vinson (“Fred”) served as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court for seven years. Fred M. Vinson was born to James Vinson and Virginia Ferguson on January 22, 1890 in rural Louisa, Kentucky. He was raised as a Methodist. When he was just a child, his father, a local county jailer, passed away. As a result, in order to help support the family, young Fred M. Vinson took on odd jobs at various local businesses while his mother turned their home into a boarding house. In spite of these challenges, Fred M. Vinson focused strongly on his education, graduating in 1909 from Normal School and moving on from there to Centre College Law. There, he studied law and joined a fraternity, Phi Delta Theta. An accomplished student, he received several scholarships and achieved the highest marks in the college’s history.
Following graduation, in 1911, at 21 years of age, Fred M. Vinson went back to his hometown of Louisa, Kentucky, where he opened a private law practice. Soon after launching his law practice, Fred M. Vinson was elected City Attorney in Louisa, a position he held from 1914 to 1915. Several years later, in 1917, after the country entered World War I, he enlisted in the United States Army, although the war ended before he had finished officer’s training. Having never seen combat, he headed back to Louisa whereupon he was elected the 32nd Judicial District of Kentucky’s Commonwealth Attorney. He was next elected, in 1924, as a Democrat to the United States House of Representatives. There, he made a lifelong friend of then Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman. Also in 1924, Fred M. Vinson got married to Julia Roberta Dixon in Ashland, Kentucky. The couple had two sons named Frederick, Jr., and James.
Fred M. Vinson served two separate terms in the United States House of Representatives from Kentucky’s 9th District: first, from January 24, 1924, preceded by William Fields, to March 3, 1929, when he was succeeded by Elva Kendall, and second, taking back that seat from Kendall on March 4, 1931, through March 3, 1933, when he was succeeded by John Brown. Fred M. Vinson did not leave the United States House of Representatives at that time; however, merely switching posts to represent Kentucky’s 8th district, taking Ralph Gilbert’s seat on March 4, 1933, and remaining there until May 27, 1938, when Joe Bates succeeded him.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt nominated Fred M. Vinson to fill a vacancy left by Charles Robb in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The Senate confirmed his appointment on December 9, 1937, and Fred M. Vinson officially switched from the legislative branch of the United States government to the executive branch on December 15, 1937, when he took that seat. During Fred M. Vinson’s term in this position, Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone appointed him Chief Judge of the United States Emergency Court of Appeals, a seat Fred M. Vinson held until May 28, 1943, when he resigned in order to work more closely with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration by taking on the role of Director of the Office of Economic Stabilization, the executive agency responsible for combating inflation. Fred M. Vinson held this role for just over two years, whereupon, in 1945, during the last days of World War II, when President Harry S. Truman appointed him as the 53rd United States Secretary of the Treasury. He took on this position on July 23, 1945, preceded by Henry Morgenthau and held it until June 23, 1946. That is when, after the recent passing of United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Stone, the Senate confirmed by voice vote President Truman’s appointment of Fred M. Vinson to replace Stone as the 13th Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Vinson was succeeded as United States Secretary of the Treasury by John Snyder as he, once again, switched government branches, this time from the executive to the judicial. Part of Truman’s intention in appointing Fred M. Vinson as Chief Justice was to settle a dispute between Justices Hugo Black and Robert H. Jackson, who each threatened to resign their posts if the other of them was appointed to the position.
Of the many issues, the Supreme Court considered during Chief Justice Frederick M. Vinson’s tenure were the legitimacy of racial segregation and the rights of labor unions and communists. During his term, he penned 77 opinions as well as 13 dissents. Among the cases for which Chief Justice Frederick M. Vinson is most noted is “Dennis v. United States” (1951) upholding American Communist Party members’ convictions. Chief Justice Frederick M. Vinson also sided with President Harry S. Truman in the belief in the need for a powerful central government, which likely fueled Chief Justice Frederick M. Vinson’s most renowned dissent of the Court majority’s decision, in “Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer” (1952), to void President Harry S. Truman’s notorious steel industry seizure during an industry strike. In “Sweatt v. Painter” (1950), Chief Justice Frederick M. Vinson’s acknowledgment of the prevailing “separate but equal” United States doctrine’s failure to provide all races equal treatment helped pave the way for the landmark case “Brown v. Board of Education” (1954). Vinson was even still serving as the Chief Justice when that historic case in racial desegregation was granted at the United States Supreme Court, although he was prevented from voting on the final decision when he suddenly passed away on September 8, 1953 from a heart attack. He was 63 years old. Both former President at the time Harry S. Truman and then-current President Dwight D. Eisenhower attended his funeral service, which was held in Washington, D.C. Chief Justice Frederick M. Vinson was succeeded on the Court by Justice Earl Warren.
Chief Justice Frederick M. Vinson had a difficult tenure on the Court, overseeing a deeply divided membership, with judicial activist Hugo Black on one side and promoter of judicial restraint Robert H. Jackson on the other side. It is also worth noting that the Supreme Court’s caseload decreased significantly during Chief Justice Frederick M. Vinson’s tenure, handling an average of only 90 cases per year following his first year in the post. Among the most remembered and revered pieces of United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Frederick M. Vinson’s legacy are his work in laying the groundwork for the Court’s unanimous decision in “Brown v. Board of Education” to overturn the doctrine of “separate but equal” on the grounds that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Chief Justice Frederick M. Vinson’s legacy also includes his knack for diplomacy on the Court, helping to soothe tensions among his fellow Justices, and, of course, his having held positions in all three government branches: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. Chief Justice Frederick M. Vinson’s son followed in his father’s footsteps as a lawyer who went on to argue the landmark 1972 case “Doe v. McMillan” which set crucial limits on the immunity granted government officials from civil liability.