to Making the Case
TOM C. CLARK (1899–1977)
Tom C. Clark is the first and only Texan to serve on the U.S.
Supreme Court. President Harry Truman’s appointment of Clark to
the Supreme Court in 1949 dismayed liberals and conservatives alike.
But by the time Clark stepped down from the court 18 years later, he had
earned the respect of many of his earlier detractors.
“He is a great man and was a great justice. I would not have
said so 20 years ago, but I do now, and I’m certain of it,”
Stanley M. Barnes, a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals,
said of Clark in 1967.
Clark was born into a lawyer family in 1899 in Dallas, where he grew
up. Active in the Boy Scouts, 14-year-old Clark became one of the first
Eagle Scouts in the United States. He served as a Texas National Guard
infantryman in 1918 before enrolling in the University of Texas School
of Law. After receiving his law degree in 1922, Clark joined his
father’s firm in Dallas. In 1927, Clark went to work as a civil
attorney in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, working
there until 1932, when he returned to private practice.
Reputed to have never lost a case while in the DA’s office,
Clark was once quoted as saying, “A good lawyer doesn’t
file a suit unless he’s sure he can win.”
In 1937, Clark shifted his focus from Dallas to Washington, D.C.,
where he continued to wear his trademark bow tie and Stetson hat. Clark
joined the U.S. Justice Department, serving as civilian coordinator for
the relocation of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast during the early
part of World War II. He later served as head of the antitrust and
criminal divisions in the Justice Department, working his way up through
the ranks in that agency. Truman appointed Clark as U.S. attorney
general in 1945.
But Clark fell into disfavor with some Texans when, as the attorney
general, he sued Texas for its oil-rich tidelands and won. The Supreme
Court effectively held that the submerged area belonged to the federal
government, not to Texas and the other states that claimed the
tidelands. Although Congress passed a bill in 1952 that restored the
states’ rights to their submerged lands, Truman vetoed that
legislation. Texas fought back, however, finally winning title to its
tidelands in 1960.
In 1949, Truman nominated Clark for a Supreme Court vacancy created
by the death of Justice Frank Murphy, but the nomination drew protests.
The press accused Truman of cronyism, and civil liberty groups
criticized Clark as being a national security zealot. After a heated
debate, the Senate confirmed Clark. However, Truman lived to regret the
Clark appointment and told one interviewer that it was “the worst
mistake” of his presidency.
As an associate justice on the Supreme Court, Clark proved he had an
independent streak. In 1952’s Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co.
v. Sawyer, the Supreme Court struck down Truman’s seizure of
the nation’s steel mills to avert an expected strike by the United
Steel Workers during the Korean War. Clark was one of the six justices
who voted against the president in that case.
Although considered a conservative, Clark often was a swing vote on
the Supreme Court, siding with the court’s liberal bloc in some
cases and with its conservatives on other occasions. A supporter of
desegregation, Clark voted with the high court majority in 1950’s
Sweatt v. Painter, which ended segregation at the University of
Texas law school, and in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education
of Topeka, which put an end to the “separate but equal”
In 1961, Clark penned one of his most important opinions in Mapp
v. Ohio, which established the exclusionary rule in criminal
cases. In its landmark decision in Mapp, the Supreme Court held
that all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the
U.S. Constitution is inadmissible in state court under the Fourth
Amendment. He also wrote the court’s opinion in 1963’s
Abington Township School District v. Schempp, which banned
recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the reading of Bible verses
in public schools.
Clark retired from the Supreme Court in 1967 to avoid a potential
conflict of interest. President Lyndon B. Johnson had appointed
Clark’s son, Ramsey, to the fill the attorney general’s
post. But Clark remained active, serving as a senior judge and working
tirelessly for judicial reforms. He helped to establish the Federal
Judicial Center, serving as the first director from 1968 to 1970.
Clark died in 1977. The Tom C. Clark Building, an office building in
the Capitol complex in Austin, and a high school in San Antonio are
named in his honor.