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Abe Fortas (1910-1982)

Abe Fortas, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, was born in Memphis, the son of an English-born Orthodox Jew and cabinetmaker. While attending high school, Fortas worked nights at a shoe store and also earned money playing the violin at parties. A 1930 graduate of Southwestern College at Memphis (now Rhodes College), Fortas went on to study law at Yale Law School, serving as editor of the Yale Law Review before graduating at the top of his class in 1933. Fortas was influenced by his law professor, William O. Douglas, with whom he would later work at the Securities and Exchange Commission and on the Supreme Court.

Following graduation, Fortas spent four years as an assistant professor of law at Yale before entering government service at the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission, where he held a variety of positions, including assistant director of the Public Utilities section. He served as general counsel for the Public Works Administration from 1939 to 1941. In 1942 he moved to the Interior Department, where he rose to the position of undersecretary. While at Interior, he participated in the organizational meeting of the United Nations as an adviser to the U.S. delegation, a position he also filled at the first United Nations Assembly in 1946.

Resigning from government, Fortas formed the Washington, D.C., law firm of Arnold, Fortas and Porter, specializing in corporate law. In addition to his corporate practice, Fortas took cases involving civil liberties and was involved in defending individuals accused of communist activities during the McCarthy era. In 1963 he argued the case of Gideon v. Wainwright before the Supreme Court, which established the right of indigent defendants in criminal cases to receive free legal counsel, often viewed as one of the Supreme Court's most important decisions regarding the rights of the accused.

During his years in private practice, Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson became one of Fortas's clients. Johnson sought counsel over a dispute involving attempts to keep his name off the ballot in the Texas general election. Fortas helped resolve the conflict and became Johnson's friend and confidant. In 1965 President Johnson appointed Justice Arthur Goldberg as ambassador to the United Nations and named Fortas to the Supreme Court, where he served until 1969.

Fortas's relatively short tenure on the Court was a mixture of scholarship and controversy. Viewed as a libertarian on individual rights, he fit within the liberal wing of the Warren Court as an ally of Douglas and a worthy successor to Goldberg. Fortas reportedly cast the deciding vote in the landmark case of Miranda v. Arizona (1966), enlarging the rights of criminal suspects during police investigations. Fortas authored the majority opinion in In Re Gault (1967), where the Court held that juveniles were entitled to the same procedural protections during juvenile criminal proceedings that applied to adult court proceedings.

When Chief Justice Earl Warren announced his retirement in 1968, Johnson nominated Fortas as his successor. With Johnson as a lame-duck president and the Republicans sensing a November victory, Fortas's appointment soon drew fire. His friendship with Johnson, the discovery that he had continued counseling the president while a justice, and the disclosure of his acceptance of a large outside lecture fee made his Senate confirmation the subject of a filibuster which survived a cloture attempt. Faced with a protracted confirmation fight, Johnson honored Fortas's request to withdraw his nomination.

In early 1969 Life magazine revealed that Fortas had received, and then returned, a twenty-thousand-dollar fee from a family foundation of an industrialist since connected to stock manipulation. When this past association drew heated criticism from the public and Congress, Fortas resigned, becoming the first justice forced to resign from the Court. He returned to private practice, forming the Washington, D.C., law firm of Fortas and Koven. Fortas died in 1982, two weeks after arguing a case before the Supreme Court, his first return to the Court since his resignation.

Suggested Reading

Laura Kalman, Abe Fortas (1990); Bruce Murphy, Fortas: The Rise and Ruin of a Supreme Court Justice (1988).

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010