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” doctrine.
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.