On this day in 1890, Fred Vinson was born. When the Supreme Court of the United States first heard Brown v. Board, he was the sitting Chief Justice, and under his leadership the Court could not reach a decision about school segregation — which he believed the Constitution permitted. He died before the Court could re-hear the case. Felix Frankfurter reportedly declared, “This is the first indication that I have ever had that there is a God.” The appointment of Earl Warren to replace Vinson changed the micropolitics of the Court — and the course of the civil rights movement.

During oral argument of Brown, Robert Jackson remarked, “I suppose that realistically the reason this case is here is that action couldn’t be obtained in Congress.” The Court was stepping in where politics had failed, in a national crisis. And only Vinson’s death ensured that the Court would do what pretty much everyone now believes was right.

That the sclerosis of a Justice should serve as the fulcrum of history in a democracy is madness. So too is a Court that can reach decisions on the basis that, well, this decision is better than that one because now we have more Justices on the Court, and a lotta lawyers are unhappy with what we said before.1

But that is what we have: a nine-justice life-tenure tribunal stepping in, will-we nill-we, when our political institutions fail. And it doesn’t always work out so well. (This decision good for this case only. Offer void anywhere they respect democracy and/or the rule of law.)

So in our fine legal/political system, it matters who gets into the White House next, quite a lot, actually, completely irrespective of his or her position on Iraq, healthcare, or economic stimuli.


1No, really: “It has been urged also that the decision in Hepburn v. Griswold should be held final under the doctrine of res adjudicata, independently of the merits of that decision. But circumstances, the absence of a court as large as now, lessened the force of that decision, and induced a great portion of the legal profession to desire a reconsideration of the question.”