What If Chief Justice Fred Vinson Had Not Died of a Heart Attack in 1953?: Implications for Brown and Beyond
28 Pages Posted: 3 Jan 2012
Date Written: 2011
This Essay, written for an Indiana Law Review symposium on counterfactuals in constitutional history, explores what might have happened if Chief Justice Fred Vinson had not died of a heart attack in September 1953.
The Essay contends that Chief Justice Vinson’s untimely death deprived him of the historical stature to which he otherwise would have been entitled. It concludes, contrary to many accounts, that Vinson would have authored a unanimous opinion of the Court in Brown v. Board of Education invalidating segregation in public schools. This conclusion is bolstered by Vinson’s decisions in prior race cases, by his consistent support for the policies of the federal government, by his fervent anti-Communism, and by his close friendship with President Harry Truman. Authorship of Brown would have given Vinson instant historical immortality, guaranteeing his place among the nation’s most significant chief justices.
Moreover, if Vinson had survived, Earl Warren would not have become Chief Justice. Vinson’s more likely successors would have been John Marshall Harlan (under Eisenhower) or Byron White (under Kennedy). Depending on the timing of Vinson’s ultimate departure from the court, certain key Warren Court precedents might have been decided by 5-4 votes in the other direction.
Keywords: Fred Vinson, Brown v. Board of Education, segregation, Supreme Court, constitutional history, Chief Justice
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