Thomas Campbell Clark was a Texas lawyer who served in the United States Department of Justice beginning in 1937, as United States Attorney General from 1945 to 1949, and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1949 to 1967.
Thomas Campbell Clark was born on September 23,1899, in Dallas, Texas, to William Clark and Virginia Falls Clark. In later years he preferred the more simple “Tom C. Clark.” His father was a prominent Texas lawyer who served at one time as president of the Texas Bar Association but whose alcoholism ultimately devastated his legal practice and forced his son Tom to work part-time through most of his high school, college, and law' school years.
Clark graduated from Bryan Street High School in 1917, he attended Virginia Military Institute for a year until forced to drop out for lack of finances. Thereafter, he joined the Texas National Guard and spent the last several months of World War I as a sergeant in the 153rd Infantry Division. With the war’s end, he resumed his education by enrolling in the University of Texas, from which he earned a B.A. in 1921 and a law school degree the following year.
Tom Clark began legal practice with his father's firm in Dallas, where his brother Bill also practiced. Five years later, in 1927, Clark became an assistant district attorney for Dallas County and was able to combine responsibility for the county’s civil litigation w'ith a private practice of his owm. In 1932, he resigned from this position and formed a legal partnership with the former district attorney, William McCraw', for whom he had originally worked in the district attorney’s office. Tw'o years latci McCraw ran for Texas attorney general, and with Clark as his campaign manager, he won the election.
In 1937 the prospect of being a government lawyer and an invitation from Texas Senator Tom Connally lured Clark to Washington, w'here he took a position in the Justice Department as special assistant in the War Risk Insurance Office. Within a year he had been transferred to the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department, w'here he began to develop an expertise in this complex area of law that he would one day carry with him to the Supreme Court. Posted for a time in New Orleans and later in San Francisco, Clark was working on the West Coast when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He soon found himself in charge of the relocation of Japanese civilians from the West Coast to internment camps, a nasty business that he supported at die time but later counted among the biggest mistakes of his life.
By 1942 Clark was back in Washington, in charge of the War Frauds Unit of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. This wras a fortuitous legal assignment, for it brought the Texan into contact with Senator Harry S. Truman, then chairman of the Senate War Investigating Committee, which itself was probing fraudulent claims made against the government. Their common battle against wartime fraud taught the two men to respect each other’s ability.
In the years immediately follow'ing this assignment, Clark continued his steady' rise in the Justice Department. In 1943 he became assistant attorney general over the Antitrust Division, and the next year he W'as given charge of the department’s criminal division. In 1944 he also picked an important winner w'hen unlike his superior, Attorney General Francis Biddle he cast his support behind Harry Truman as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate. Iruman subsequently won the spot on his party s ticket. With President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election in 1944 and his death the following yrear, Clark’s former associate in the prosecution of wartime fraud had become himself the president of die United States. Truman wasted little time in rewarding Clark’s loyalty and proven ability: In 1945 the president made Tom Clark attorney general.
When Associate Justice Frank Murphy died in the summer of 1949, President Truman promptly nominated Clark to assume Murphy’s seat on the Court. This nomination displeased some observers because Murphy had been the only Catholic on the Court and they believed another Catholic—rather than a Presbyterian like Clark—should replace Murphy. Many liberal observers opposed Clark’s nomination, believing him far to the right of Murphy, who had been one of the Court’s most prominent liberal justices. But Clark won confirmation in the Senate by a vote of 73-8 and took the oath of office as a Supreme Court justice on August 24, 1949. By the time he retired from the Court 18 years later, he had served longer than any other justice appointed by Truman.
Truman had hoped that Clark would fortify the position of Fred Vinson, whom Truman had made chief justice in 1946, and during their four years on the Court together, Clark generally sided with Vinson. On one significant occasion, though, he parted ways both with the chief justice and with the president who had appointed him, when he joined the majority of the Court that declared Truman’s seizure of steel mills during the Korean war unconstitutional in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952). He also proved to be less predictably conservative than Vinson. Although Clark carried his anticommunist zeal with him onto the Court and thus routinely supported government attempts to ferret out and frustrate the cause of the Communist Party in the United States, he also authored important decisions in the areas of civil rights and civil liberties. He wrote the Court’s opinions in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964) and Katzenbach v. McClung (1964), upholding the power of Congress to prohibit racial discrimination in hotels and restaurants that affected interstate commerce. Moreover, he spoke for the Court in Mapp v. Ohio (1961), which held that state courts could not consider evidence in criminal proceedings that had been obtained in an illegal search or seizure. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the Presbyterian Clark announced the Court’s decision in A bington School District v. Schempp (1963), which held that Bible readings in public schools violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
In 1924 he married Mary Jane Ramsey, whom he had met while at the University of Texas. The couple had three children: a son Thomas Campbell, Jr., who died at the age of six from meningitis; a daughter, Mildred; and another son, William Ramsey, who eventually became attorney general of the United States.