The most fascinating Supreme Court Justice you’ve never heard of

In 1945 Robert Jackson shocked his colleagues and walked away from the Supreme Court. It wasn’t a permanent leave; he was on sabbatical.

The former solicitor general, who also happened to be one of Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite poker buddies, was leaving the court to prosecute Nazis at Nuremberg. It wasn’t a popular decision with his colleagues.

In one of his myriad memoirs, associate justice and irascible non vivant William O. Douglas wrote:

I thought at the time he accepted the job that it was a gross violation of separation of powers to put a Justice in charge of an executive function. I thought, and I think Stone and Black agreed, that If Bob did that, he should resign. Moreover, some of us – particularly Stone, Black, Murphy and I – thought that Nuremberg trials were unconstitutional by American standards.

Truth be told, Jackson and Douglas were rivals. Though they were both democrats nominated by Roosevelt, they both fancied themselves at times of being of presidential timbre.

No matter what he thought of Jackson, Douglas admits Jackson handled himself well at Nuremberg.

Jackson didn’t just hold Nazis accountable, though.

When Korematsu came before the court, Jackson was a shining light. A brief recap of Korematsu: During World War II, President Roosevelt signed executive order 1066, which interred Japanese Americans. It’s a vile chapter in our country’s history. It was morally repugnant and based in rank political cowardice. Eventually, a case made its way to the court, where the court sided with the government.

Jackson was one of three justices to dissent, offering some memorable passages, including:

…(h)is crime would result, not from anything he did, said, or thought, different than they, but only in that he was born of different racial stock. Now, if any fundamental assumption underlies our system, it is that guilt is personal and not inheritable. Even if all of one’s antecedents had been convicted of treason, the Constitution forbids its penalties to be visited upon him. But here is an attempt to make an otherwise innocent act a crime merely because this prisoner is the son of parents as to whom he had no choice, and belongs to a race from which there is no way to resign. If Congress in peace-time legislation should enact such a criminal law, I should suppose this Court would refuse to enforce it.

The principled Jackson’s foray to Nuremberg came at great political cost, however. It tore at his family and it also possibly cost him a chance at being Chief Justice.

Roosevelt had long promised to elevate him to the role and he expected Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, to nominate him.

We now know that other factors also weighed on Truman’s mind. Justice Black threatened to resign if his colleague was given the spot.

Black’s contempt for Jackson might only have been equaled by Douglas’. No doubt that hurt Jackson’s chances. And he wasn’t in the country to defend himself.

How influential was Jackson? One of his law clerks was William H. Rehnquist, who ended up becoming an Associate and Chief Justice.

Rehnquist’s nominations give us a final fascinating look at Jackson.

Rehnquist was Jackson’s clerk during Brown, probably the court’s most important decision of the 20th century. It ended up being a unanimous decision destroying Plessy V. Ferguson. Brown desegregated schools and is heralded as a high mark in the history of not just the civil rights movement, but of the court itself. During the deliberations on whether or not to approve President Nixon’s nomination of Rehnquist, a memo was found. Signed by Rehnquist, it said Plessy shouldn’t be overturned.

Rehnquist claimed that was Jackson’s opinion. However, considering Jackson’s previous writings on equality, his vote in the case and Rehnquist’s initials, that’s hard to believe. But Jackson was long dead and couldn’t defend himself.

Links from outside the den

Robert H Jackson Law Center

What if you found out in school that your dad was a major figure in an important civil rights case

In the den

More Writing about the court

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The most fascinating Supreme Court Justice you’ve never heard of

One of America’s best – and least known – conspiracies

Felix Frankfurter has one of the greatest names in American history. First of all, it’s alliteration, and who doesn’t love alliteration. Second of all, Felix is fun. And Frankfurter sounds downright Dickensian. That’s perfect because Frankfurter, a longtime and influential Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, might be the closest thing to a real life Ebenezer Scrooge, without the salvation at the end of the story.

Instead, we get a heist mystery.

Radialab’s More Perfect has the rundown on how Frankfurter’s papers went missing during the Nixon Era. Could it really be that people trying to save the reputation of an aspiring Supreme Court justice really nicked them?

Check out RadioLab’s podcast on the incident for a great explanation.

But while everyone starts talking about the JFK assassination conspiracy theories, wrap your mind around this one.

One of America’s best – and least known – conspiracies

An anecdote about the greatest justice

With the Supreme Court in the news, I’ve decided to brush off some of my favorite court history books and tell some interesting stories you might not know about the court, its traditions and justices.

John Marshall’s work as Chief Justice – as well as his work in the Continental Army and as John Adams’ Secretary of State – marks him as one of the most influential founding fathers.
His intellect was profound and graceful. His leadership of the court was as impressive as any generals’.
But there’s a story about Marshall that, according to everything I’ve read is not apocryphal.
Unlike the debonair Thomas Jefferson or the stately George Washington, Marshall blended in with the common man.
Marshall often did his own shopping. One day, dressed in drab apparel, Marshall was making his way home from a market in Richmond when he was stopped by a man who wasn’t familiar with the town. The man assumed Marshall was a servant and asked him to carry his turkey too. He then offered Marshall some money.
Marshall obliged.
The man was immediately told who was carrying his turkey.
The way the story is told by most historians, Marshall wasn’t put out by being asked to run the errand.

An anecdote about the greatest justice

Sandra Day O’Connor, Part II

O'ConnorWith the Supreme Court in the news, I’ve decided to brush off some of my favorite court history books and tell some interesting stories you might not know about the court, its traditions and justices.

The most influential woman in the history of the United States is a dignified former Arizona ranch hand.

It’s not that Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court that makes her so important. It’s that, for 15 years, she was the swing vote on the court. Hers was the most important vote in the nation during the 2000 election. Her work on cases like Planned Parenthood V. Casey will influence the country for generations.

While we normally name a court after the Chief Justice – in other words, we call this the Roberts Court, which came after the Rehnquist Court – it’s not often the chief who matters.

Oh, sure, he can decide who writes opinions in certain circumstances. And he can put his touch on the court in other ways as well. It’s the center that decides the outcome of the cases, however, and O’Connor’s time at the center, roughly from the time William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall resigned in 1990/1991 to her own retirement in 2005, lasted a very long time.

Since her retirement, O’Connor has been a great advocate for teaching civics in school through her iCivics program.

A few people who watch the court are turning to O’Connor as we deal with the late Antonin Scalia’s replacement on the court.

Continue reading “Sandra Day O’Connor, Part II”

Sandra Day O’Connor, Part II

The curious case of Associate Justice John Rutledge

With the Supreme Court in the news, I’ve decided to brush off some of my favorite court history books and tell some interesting stories you might not know about the court, its traditions and justices. We’ll start with John Rutledge.

As he was being fished out of Charleston Harbor, John Rutledge might have recalled a pretty dignified life as a member of the founding generation. He’d been president of South Carolina, then its governor. He’d been a member of both Continental Congresses. He’d even chaired the committee that presented the first full draft of the Constitution.

If he had been thinking about those days as he was dragged from the waters, they were old, dusty memories.

He’d fallen down a rough road into grief, shame and madness at that point.

Continue reading “The curious case of Associate Justice John Rutledge”

The curious case of Associate Justice John Rutledge