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August 28th, 2013
Bartee Haile: First Texan on Supreme Court hard to pigeonhole

This Week in Texas History:
A column

One hundred and three years after joining the Union, Texans finally got one of their own on the U.S. Supreme Court with President Truman’s Aug. 29, 1949 appointment of Tom Clark.

Thomas Campbell Clark was born at Dallas in the last year of the nineteenth century.  “Lawyering,” his slang term for the legal profession, ran in the family.  None other than George Washington appointed his great-great-grandfather to the first federal judgeship in Kentucky, and his dad served as president of the Texas Bar Association.

Following two years at Virginia Military Institute and a couple more as an infantry officer in the Great War, Clark earned undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Texas.  He married the daughter of a state supreme court justice and hung out his shingle in his hometown.

The skinny six-footer was likable and laid-back with a fondness for bright bow ties and big cigars.  “How ya doin’?” was his customary greeting and instead of good-by he drawled, “Come back and see me.”  Modest to a fault, he had a folksy explanation for his long days at the office:  “I’m not as smart as the other fellows, so I have to work harder.”

When a law partner was elected Dallas County district attorney in 1927, Clark gave up his private practice to spend the next decade as the civil DA.  Then in 1937 the dedicated New Dealer went to Washington as an assistant U.S. attorney general.  The real go-getter chewed up the competition on his way to becoming top dog on the West Coast for the Justice Department.

In the paranoid aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Clark had a hand in the roundup and internment of 70,000 citizens of Japanese ancestry.  Although preventive detention seemed sensible at the time, he eventually expressed profound regret for his part in the project.

Reassigned to the war frauds unit, Clark prosecuted white-collar crooks uncovered by Harry Truman’s senate committee.  He earned the respect of the future president, who in 1945 picked the tough but fair Texan to be his attorney general.

Chief Justice Thomas Campbell Clark

Chief Justice Thomas Campbell Clark

Clark was so unnerved by the news that he walked right into the French doors of the Oval Office.  “I guess you’re a little flustered,” Truman chuckled.  “The door is over there.”

Dallas welcomed home the first cabinet member in the city’s history with a ballroom banquet at the Adolphus Hotel.  Newspaper reporters received advance copies of the guest of honor’s prepared remarks, which he had entitled “The Aw Shucks Speech.”

Clark, however, took his new responsibilities very seriously.  “I shall be the people’s lawyer,” he said and solemnly promised, “to see that the innocent are protected, the guilty punished, monopolies, trust and restraints in interstate business prevented, the public purse guarded, civil liberties preserved and constitutional guarantees held inviolate.”

As attorney general, Clark cracked down on the mine workers union for defying a no-strike injunction and issued the first official subversives list to the horror of civil libertarians and the political left.  He struck an important blow for equal rights by supporting a successful suit that prohibited racial discrimination in housing contracts and staked a federal claim to off-shore oil deposits, an act of heresy in the Lone Star State.

Even though attorney general had long been a stepping stone to the Supreme Court, Clark’s religion seemed to rule him out as the replacement for the only Catholic justice.  Because the body had included at least one member of that faith for more than a half century, no one believed Truman would break with tradition by picking a Presbyterian.

Gasps of surprise from the White House press corps greeted the presidential announcement in August 1949.  When a newsman insinuated his choice was a slap in the face for Catholics, Truman sternly insisted religion was not an issue.

Court watchers found Justice Clark impossible to pigeonhole as a liberal or conservative.  More a pragmatist than an ideologue, he generally based his opinions on the merits of the case.

Conservatives cheered Clark’s anti-communism, which usually put him in the minority.  In 1957 he voted against invalidating the Smith Act convictions of 14 Communist Party leaders he had won while attorney general and opposed reining in the House Un-American Activities Committee.  As late as 1967, his last year in the black robe, he refused to reinstate a schoolteacher fired for his radical past.

Liberals liked Clark’s record on integration, such as his votes in 1950 to force the UT law school to admit blacks, in 1953 to ban Texas’ whites-only primary and in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that declared segregated public schools unconstitutional.  By far his most controversial vote was the one cast in 1963 ruling prayer and Bible readings had no place in tax-supported classrooms.

In March 1967, President Lyndon Johnson filled the attorney-general vacancy with Tom Clark’s 39 year old son, Ramsey.  As expected, the father resigned from the Supreme Court rather than risk a conflict of interest.

Ten different column collections are available at the “General Store” on Bartee’s new web site or you may request a list at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.

San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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