Tom Campbell Clark (1899-1977) served the United States for more than 20 years as President Harry S. Truman's attorney general and as a Truman appointee to the Supreme Court.
Dallas-born Tom Campbell Clark's soft-spoken drawl never disguised what for 22 years was one of the most influential legal minds in post World War II America. During four years as President Harry S. Truman's first attorney general (1945-1949) and for 18 years as one of Truman's four Supreme Court appointments (1949-1906), Tom Clark shaped American legal history.
Born September 23, 1899, to a prominent public family in Dallas Democratic party circles, Clark was raised a Presbyterian, as his Scotch-Irish ancestry predicted. He served for a short time in World War I and afterwards attended the University of Texas, graduating with a Bachelor's degree and an L.L.B. He joined his family's law firm in 1922. Two years later he married Mary Jane Ramsey, daughter of a Texas judge.
Clark's interest in politics and his family connections brought him to the attention of Congressman Sam Rayburn, later Speaker of the House, and of Senator Tom Connolly. During the 1920s and early 1930s, Clark engaged in private practice with occasional sallies into government service. An appearance on behalf of oil interests before the Texas legislature brought him censure from that body. In 1937 he joined the Justice Department and worked his way through that expanding agency in its New Deal heyday. A hard worker, politically reliable and well-connected, Clark rose rapidly under the benign protection of Rayburn, Connolly, and other patrons.
Clark was to spend the principal part of his public career as a Truman appointee and thus the relationship between the two is crucial. The public record is historically ambivalent, however. Clark and Truman first became associated during the work of the World War II "Truman Committee" (Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program) which uncovered waste and fraud in the war effort. Established in 1941, the committee functioned as a watchdog working closely with the Justice Department's War Fraud Unit, then headed by Tom Clark.
In 1944, when Senator Truman sought the vice presidential nomination in Chicago, Clark was one of his supporters while then-Attorney General Francis Biddle was not. Inaugurated in January 1945, Truman served a mere three months as vice president, succeeding President Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945. One month later Truman took steps to remove Biddle, informing him to his apparent dismay that Clark was his replacement at Justice.
Clark served Truman as attorney general for somewhat over four years, from July 1, 1945, to August 14, 1949. A dutiful Cabinet officer, he took an active role in antitrust cases and prosecuted subversives as part of Truman's anti-Communist activities. Unwilling to go beyond the bounds of moderation in loyalty cases, he was sometimes at odds with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Unique among his duties as attorney general were the thorny legal problems arising out of the war: black marketeering, alien internment and deportation, and disposition of government financed war factories.
Clark vigorously supported Truman's hard line against the Soviet Union which manifested itself in the Doctrine of Containment and the Truman Doctrine. In 1948 he was one of the president's most avid supporters, defending the administration's record on internal security matters.
Clark's tenure was marked by congressional criticism and by some scandal, including the famous case of T. Lamar Caudle, a tax expert he brought into the department who later went to jail for conspiracy involving tax fraud. By the time the Caudle scandal came to light, Clark had been appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, his judicial skirts raised clear of any mud by an overwhelming confirmation vote of 73 to eight (all eight dissenters being Republicans) taken on August 19, 1949.
Clark's 18 years on the Court spanned the most active period in its history, when it was the center of such vital and controversial issues as presidential power to seize private property, legislative reapportionment, school prayer, censorship, and civil rights.
Truman's appointment of Clark was generally attributed to the intervention of Chief Justice Fred Vinson, whom the president had chosen in 1946. In Clark, Vinson found a moderate Southerner he could work with.
As attorney general Clark had been thoroughly loyal to his chief, but his appointment to the Court freed him from that fealty and left him free to follow his own Constitutional dictates.
In the Steel Seizure case of 1952, both Truman and Vinson discovered Clark's independent mind when he joined five other Justices to overrule the seizure of the steel industry based on emergency inherent executive power.
The Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer decision declared Truman's act unconstitutional, thereby providing a significant check on presidential power.
A widely read biography of Truman later quoted the former president as describing his appointment of Clark as his "biggest mistake." According to oral biographer Merle Miller, Truman said: "He was no damn good as Attorney General, and on the Supreme Court … it doesn't seem possible, but he's been even worse." It is possible that Truman's disenchantment—if the quotation is accurate—was founded on the Youngstown decision.
In other instances of Court decisions Clark showed himself a moderate libertarian, somewhat to the right of William O. Douglas but certainly within Franklin D. Roosevelt's oft-quoted description of his own ideological position: slightly to the left of center. Clark wrote the unanimous decision in Burstyn v. Wilson (1952) which removed a state's right to censor a film on grounds of sacrilege. He joined the majority in striking down the use of the New York State Regents prayer in public schools (Engle v. Vitale, 1962). He supported the landmark Baker v. Carr reapportionment decision, although with reservations. And, in what was one of the most far-reaching judicial decisions of modern times, Clark was part of a unanimous Court's ruling on school desegregation when in 1954 Brown v. Board of Education reversed Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896.
Rising up the ladder of national prominence in the 1960s was Justice Clark's lawyer son, (William) Ramsey Clark. Paternal pride gave way to embarrassment, however, when President Lyndon Johnson selected the younger Clark to be his attorney general in 1967. To avoid potential conflicts of interest, Justice Clark resigned his seat, at the time calling his decision a "happy" one. Still a young man (67) by judiciary standards, he continued an active life on the Federal Court of Appeals until shortly before his death on June 13, 1977.
Tom Clark's role as attorney general can be studied from memoirs such as those of Forrestal and Ickes, as well as by standard works such as Robert J. Donovan's Conflict and Crisis (1977) and Tumultous Years (1982), dealing with the Truman era. He coauthored (with Philip B. Perlman) Prejudice and Proper, an Historic Brief Against Racial Covenants (1969). Standard works such as Alfred H. Kelly's and Winfred A. Harbison's The American Constitution (1977) put Clark's judicial career in context.
Larrimer, Don, Biobibliography of Justice Tom C. Clark, Austin: Tarlton Law Library, School of Law, University of Texas at Austin, 1985.