A native of Indiana, Sherman Minton served as a Justice on the United States Supreme Court from 1949 to 1956. He is also well-known for representing Indiana as a member of the United States Senate. He was a fervent supporter of New Deal legislation and Franklin D. Roosevelt, although his Supreme Court tenure was marked by more conservative interpretations of the Constitution. Health issues that began earlier in his judicial career eventually caused his retirement from the Supreme Court.
Early Life and Education
Sherman Minton was born on October 20, 1890 in Georgetown, Indiana. His parents were John Evan, a day laborer for the New Albany and St. Louis Air Line Railway, and Emma Livers Minton. He attended a small, two-room schoolhouse in his hometown of Georgetown up until eighth grade.
In 1898, his father suffered an injury which prevented him from working, and his mother died of breast cancer after a botched operation in 1900. These two incidents were harsh blows to both Minton and the rest of his family, and his father’s inability to work had left the family in poverty. This all led to a young Minton becoming something of a troublemaker. A particular incident of importance was when he was arrested in 1904 for disregarding a city ordinance and riding a bicycle on a sidewalk. The case was brought before a Justice of the Peace and Minton was fined $3. He would later recall the incident as being the catalyst for his legal career.
Although his family relocated to Texas and Minton worked in the Fort Worth area in a meat packing plant, he returned to Indiana for both high school and college. Minton received his high school education at Edwardsville High School, which was consolidated with New Albany High School a year after he began his schooling there. He was active in sports both in high school and college, but perhaps his biggest accomplishment was founding the debate team at his high school. In 1910, he graduated at the top of his class.
Determined to attend college, Minton worked in Texas to pay his way and enrolled in Indiana University in 1911. Although he barely had enough money to finish school, he did, and became friends with influential figures such as future Governor of Indiana Paul V. McNutt and future presidential candidate Wendell L. Willkie during his time there. He graduated from Indiana University at the top of his class and went on to attend and graduate at the top of his class from Indiana University School of Law. With a scholarship, he took post-graduate classes at Yale Law School where he found a special interest in constitutional law. He graduated from there with a post-graduate master’s degree in 1916.
World War I
While Minton briefly opened a private law practice after graduation in 1916, World War I would call him away from civilian life. He enlisted in the Army and after one unsuccessful attempt at earning a commission, tried again and became a captain. His unit was largely responsible for scouting and he saw no combat during the war. After being discharged in 1919, he remained in Paris to study various law subjects at the University of Paris. He returned to the United States in early 1920.
Upon returning from the war, Minton reopened his law practice and began his political career. His first attempt was to run for Indiana’s 3rd congressional district in 1920, although he lost in the primary. After returning to private practice for nearly ten years he tried again to secure the nomination in 1930, but also failed. When McNutt won the governorship of Indiana in 1930, he appointed Minton to a new utility regulation commission.
His popularity on the commission and support from the governor allowed him to successfully run for the United States Senate in 1934 in spite of his poorly-received famous speech, where he argued that the needs of the people during the raging Depression outweighed the Constitution. He served from January 3, 1935 to January 3, 1941. Minton was highly supportive of the New Deal and Roosevelt’s court packing plan. Due to this, he became the Senate majority whip.
Minton lost his re-election campaign in 1940, but as a reward for his support, President Roosevelt appointed Minton to a position in the White House as an advisor and a liaison between Roosevelt’s administration and Congress.
Appointment To The Federal Courts
Roosevelt went on to nominate Minton to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Minton accepted and resigned from his post in the administration. Even while on the bench, Minton continued to be active in the Democratic Party. He would serve on the court in this position for eight years.
Appointment to the Supreme Court
In September of 1949, Truman nominated Minton to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Wiley Rutledge. His nomination was met with mixed response but he was approved. Interestingly enough, while many had expected Minton to be a very liberal Justice due to his partisanship while in Congress, he surprised and disappointed many by consistently upholding order over freedom. This was mainly evidenced by his votes in favor of loyalty tests and anticommunist legislation during the Red Scare. He was in the odd position of having to rule on some legislation he had helped write, and so in many cases largely ruled based on precedent and has been described as a reactionary Justice.
Even while on the Supreme Court, he remained active in the Democratic Party on the side. He exchanged significant correspondence with Truman in particular, to whom he would offer his advice. However, most of his votes and opinions turned out to be more conservative views of the Constitution and he is largely considered to have practiced ideological neutrality and judicial restraint throughout his tenure.
Minton retired from the Supreme Court on October 15, 1956. His successor was William J. Brennan Jr.
Historically important cases Minton ruled on included Brown v. Board of Education, Dennis v. United States and Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer.
Personal and Political Beliefs
Minton’s entire career was marked by his support of the Democratic Party and New Deal legislation, of his broad view on the powers of government and his extreme dislike of racial segregation, which resulted in him voting against school segregation in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.
Minton married Gertrude Gurtz, whom he had begun dating his senior year of high school, right before he left for Europe during World War I. He had three children with her: Sherman Minton, Jr. (born in 1919, while he was in Europe), Mary-Anne Minton (born 1923) and John Minton (born 1925). The man himself has been described as witty, likable and popular.
During his retirement, he traveled both in the U.S. and Europe. He remained in contact with Truman and remained active in the Democratic Party. He occasionally gave lectures and public speeches, and also served temporarily in lower federal courts when asked.
Health Issues and Death
Minton’s health had begun to decline prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court. In 1945 he had suffered a heart attack, and in 1949 a broken leg forced him to walk with a cane for the rest of his life. Anemia would plague him throughout his tenure on the Supreme Court and his worsening health was the primary reason for his retirement.
Minton died on April 9, 1965, not long after being admitted to the Floyd Memorial Hospital in New Albany with internal bleeding.
The bridge that carries Interstate 64 across the Ohio River from Kentucky into Indiana was named after Minton during his lifetime and he attended the dedication ceremony. Minton’s term on the Supreme Court was notable because it marked the end of Justices largely serving shorter terms, and since his retirement terms have become gradually longer.
His opinions from the bench were characterized by their solid logic, although none stand out as being particularly impactful or meaningful. He is remembered as being a soothing presence on the Supreme Court, and was well-liked by the other Justices. He has, to date, been the last member of Congress to serve on the Supreme Court, owing to the push for non-partisanship in the judiciary branch. He is also the only Supreme Court Justice from the state of Indiana.