Clark, Thomas Campbell (1899–1977)

By: Paul Finkelman

Type: Biography

Published: December 1, 1994

Updated: June 9, 2017

Tom Campbell Clark, attorney general of the United States and the first Texan to serve on the United States Supreme Court, was born in Dallas on September 23, 1899, to William H. and Jennie (Falls) Clark. He attended Virginia Military Institute in 1917–18 and received an A.B. degree from the University of Texas in 1921. After graduating in 1922 from the University of Texas School of Law, Clark practiced law in Dallas and was civil district attorney of Dallas County from 1927 until 1937. In 1924 he married Mary Ramsey, the daughter of Texas Supreme Court justice William F. Ramsey; they had three children.

In 1937 Clark joined the Roosevelt administration as an assistant to the United States attorney general. He worked first in the War Risk Litigation Section and then in the Antitrust Division. Clark became the department's chief of West Coast offices in 1940, and in 1942 he coordinated and directed the relocation and incarceration of American citizens of Japanese ancestry. He worked closely with the military to implement the program despite opposition to wholesale internment from his superior, Attorney General Francis Biddle. Clark later referred to his involvement in the Japanese-American relocation project as one of his biggest mistakes.

In 1942 Clark was appointed head of the War Frauds Unit of the Justice Department, where he prosecuted frauds uncovered by Senator Harry Truman. Clark became assistant attorney general in 1943 and headed the antitrust and criminal divisions until he became attorney general to President Truman in 1945. As attorney general, Clark supported the authority of the federal government. Thus he vigorously enforced the government's antitrust laws while successfully prosecuting the United Mine Workers Union and labor leader John L. Lewis for violating a federal no-strike injunction. Clark opposed states' rights when he successfully argued before the Supreme Court that the United States and not the individual states owned off-shore oilfields in United States v. California (1947) (see TIDELANDS CONTROVERSY). In a similar vein, Clark helped develop Truman's national civil-rights policy in opposition to some of the states. Under Clark the Department of Justice initiated its first modern amicus brief on behalf of a civil-rights plaintiff in the restrictive-covenant case, Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which resulted in a unanimous decision against race discrimination in housing contracts. Clark's support of a strong national government also extended to the defense of loyalty oaths and opposition to domestic dissent. He issued the first attorney general's list of subversive organizations and initiated prosecution of the leaders of the American Communist party under the Smith Act.

In 1949 he replaced Frank Murphy on the United States Supreme Court. He was generally considered a liberal member of the Vinson court and a more conservative justice during the years of the Warren court. Associate Justice Clark served for eighteen years. It is not surprising that the former attorney general who vigorously enforced the Smith Act usually voted to uphold McCarthy-era prosecutions. This put him in the minority in Yates v. United States (1957), which overturned the Smith Act convictions of fourteen Communist party officials, and in Watkins v. United States (1957), which curbed the investigations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities; and in the majority in Barenblatt v. United States (1959), which upheld a contempt conviction of a professor who refused to answer the committee's questions, and in Rosenberg v. United States (1959), which gave Congress control over the release of FBI files to defendants. As late as 1967 Clark dissented in Keyishian v. Board of Regents, when the court overturned the removal of a teacher for past political affiliations.

Clark joined the court at the beginning of the civil rights movement and consistently voted in favor of integration. In Sweatt v. Painter (1950) Clark's support of the majority opinion, which ordered the integration of the University of Texas law school, was particularly important. He also wrote the opinion in Terry v. Adams (1953), which struck down the white primary in Texas. In 1954 he joined the unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. A decade later he wrote an opinion for the unanimous upholding of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States.

Clark's background of supporting federal authority was critical in extending federal constitutional protections in other areas. In Mapp v. Ohio (1961), Clark, the former federal prosecutor, extended the exclusionary rule to prevent the use of illegally seized evidence in criminal trials by state officials. Here he extended the protections of the Fourth Amendment to defendants in state trials and thus limited the powers of the states. In his opinion striking down prayer and Bible reading in public schools in School District of Abingdon v. Schempp (1963), Clark spoke as a justice from the "Bible Belt," reaffirming that "we are a religious people" but asserting that prayer should be kept out of public schools. In concurring in Baker v. Carr (1962), Clark ruled against state legislative apportionment practices that were discriminatory.

In 1967 his son William Ramsey Clark was appointed attorney general by President Lyndon B. Johnson. To avoid any conflicts of interest in cases his son might argue, Justice Clark retired from the bench. At the suggestion of Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Justice Tom Clark's seat was filled by Thurgood Marshall, the first black to serve on the Supreme Court. After retiring, Clark served on eleven of the United States circuit courts of appeals and in 1968 was appointed the first director of the Federal Judicial Center, where he studied the judicial system and worked for improvements in its administration. He also served as chairman both of the American Bar Association Section of Judicial Administration and of the National College of State Trial Judges. He died in New York City on June 13, 1977.

Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds., The Justices of the United States Supreme Court (5 vols., New York: Chelsea House, 1969). Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality (New York: Knopf, 1976). Supreme Court Reporter, October 1977.

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Politics and Government
  • Judges
Time Periods:
  • World War II
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Paul Finkelman, “Clark, Thomas Campbell,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 11, 2022,

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December 1, 1994
June 9, 2017

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