Division and Discord: The Supreme Court under Stone and Vinson, 1941-1953

By Freyer, Tony A. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Division and Discord: The Supreme Court under Stone and Vinson, 1941-1953


Freyer, Tony A., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Division and Discord: The Supreme Court under Stone and Vinson, 1941-1953. By MELVIN I. UROFSKY. Chief Justiceships of the United States Supreme Court. HERBERT A. JOHNSON, General Editor. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997. xv, 298 pp. $39.95. MELVIN I. UROFSKY S latest work on the Supreme Court suggests the usefulness of studying negative examples. Generally, historians have identified the Court's most salient influence on the nation's life with the tenure of certain chief justices, particularly John Marshall, Roger B. Taney, Charles Evans Hughes, Earl Warren, and William H. Rehnquist. Under these men, the Court overcame internal dissension and disagreement to establish a coherent constitutional jurisprudence. Urofsky presents a counterexample in which jurisprudential consistency emerged despite intractable contentiousness among several longer-serving justices, especially Hugo L. Black, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, and Robert H. Jackson and two chief justices whose leadership proved ineffectual, Harlan F. Stone and Fred M. Vinson.

From this contrast Urofsky makes several worthwhile contributions. He lucidly retells the well-known story of the constitutional "revolution" of 1937 in which, as a result of Justice Owen J. Roberts's switch, a majority of the Court went from opposing to supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal liberalism. Roosevelt failed to bring about this transformation through his defeated Court-packing plan. He nonetheless triumphed because, following the retirement of four conservative justices, by 1941 he had appointed to the Court a string of staunch New Deal liberals, especially Black, Douglas, Frankfurter, and Jackson. Paradoxically, even as these liberals gave constitutional sanction to the New Deal in case after case, they increasingly fragmented into shifting majority and minority voting blocks. Liberalism seemed at war with itself.

Many others have told this story before, but few in such an accessible manner as Urofsky. He blends well the interpersonal clashes among the justices with the course of decision making concerning the expansion of individual rights; the shift in the federal system, which resulted in national domination; the paramount struggle of World War II and the coming of the Cold War; the controversy over the scope of incorporation and due process; the tenuous ascension of the rights of labor; and the rise of racial struggle, which paved the way for Brown v. …

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