Indiana at 200: Hoosier Played Key Role in Civil Rights
by Andrea Neal
Chief Justice Earl Warren gets most of the credit, and rightly so, for the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing segregated schools. But were it not for a Hoosier — Justice Sherman Minton of Floyd County — the Brown case would not have even been before the Supreme Court at that time.
In 1952, prior to Warren’s appointment, the court had to decide whether or not to take the case. The majority was against it, including Chief Justice Fred Vinson. However, only four “yes” votes are needed to hear Supreme Court appeals. Minton provided one of those votes, along with Justices Douglas, Burton and Black.
According to Linda C. Gugin, co-author of “Sherman Minton: New Deal Senator, Cold War Justice,” Minton’s position in Brown “was very consistent with his progressive views on civil rights.”
Minton expressed discomfort with racial discrimination in his highly regarded 1953 opinion in Barrows v. Jackson. The case involved a covenant in a deed, which barred the sale of a residence to a non-white. As stated by Minton: “The question we now have is: can such a restrictive covenant be enforced at law by a suit for damages against a co-covenanter who allegedly broke the covenant?” Minton’s answer was a resounding “no.”
In the Brown case a year later, Minton played a key role in encouraging a unanimous court. He later called it “the most important decision of the century because of its impact on our whole way of life.”
Born in Georgetown in 1890, Minton attended New Albany High School and earned a law degree from Indiana University in 1915. He was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. Senate, serving from 1934 to 1941, and was a strong supporter of President Roosevelt, including Roosevelt’s plan to pack the Supreme Court by adding justices who would support New Deal legislation. Minton lost his bid for re-election.
His friend and former Senate colleague Harry Truman appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1949, where he served until 1956 when he retired due to steadily worsening anemia. He returned to New Albany, served occasionally as a judge on lower federal courts and gave speeches and college lectures. Minton died in 1965. He was the last member of Congress to be appointed to the Supreme Court.
Minton was considered to be in the conservative wing of the court, arguing for judicial restraint and opposing “legislating from the bench.” Some commentators felt he became more conservative than he had been when he was an enthusiastic New Deal supporter. Gugin believes that he was consistent in his populist view that the court should not usurp the will of the people as expressed by elected representatives.
Minton is often referred to as Indiana’s only Supreme Court Justice, but that is not the case. Willis Van Devanter, who served on the court from 1911 until 1937, was born and raised in Marion.
In Minton’s memory, an elegant bust by Robert Merrell Gage is displayed in the Statehouse rotunda. The Sherman Minton Bridge spans the Ohio River between Indiana and Kentucky, and the Minton-Capehart building houses federal offices in downtown Indianapolis. A plaque marks the house where he was born in Georgetown.