Washington, District of Columbia , United States
|| June 19, 1910
|Died||April 05, 1982
|Last Modifed||None Entered|
Dec 22, 2006 11:46am
|Info||Abe Fortas (June 19, 1910 – April 5, 1982) was a U.S. Supreme Court associate justice. He served in that role from October 4, 1965 until May 14, 1969, when he resigned under pressure. |
Fortas was born in Memphis, Tennessee. He was the youngest of five children. His father, a native of England, was an Orthodox Jew who worked as a cabinetmaker. Abe Fortas acquired a life-long love for music from his father, who encouraged his playing the violin, and was known in Memphis as "Fiddlin' Abe Fortas". He attended public schools in Memphis, and graduated from Southwestern (now known as Rhodes College) in 1930.
Fortas left Memphis to enroll in Yale Law School. He graduated second in his class in 1933 (second only to another Memphian, Luke Finlay) and was Editor in Chief of the Yale Law Journal. One of his professors, William O. Douglas, was impressed with Fortas and arranged for him to stay at Yale and become an assistant professor.
Shortly thereafter, Douglas left Yale to run the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in Washington, DC. Fortas commuted between New Haven and Washington both teaching at Yale and advising the SEC.
He served as general counsel of the Public Works Administration and as Undersecretary of the Interior during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. While he was working at the Department of the Interior, the Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, introduced him to a young congressman from Texas, Lyndon Johnson.
After leaving government service, Fortas started the firm Arnold, Fortas & Porter. It became one of Washington's most influential law firms.
In 1948, Lyndon Johnson ran for the Democratic nomination for one of Texas' seats in the US Senate. He won the primary by only 87 votes. His opponent convinced a federal judge to issue an order taking Johnson's name off of the general election ballot while the primary results were being contested; there were serious allegations of corruption in the voting process, including 200 Johnson votes that had been cast in alphabetical order. Johnson asked Fortas for help, and Fortas persuaded a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Hugo Black, to overturn the ruling. Johnson became a U.S. Senator, winning the general election.
In 1962, Fortas was asked to represent Clarence Earl Gideon's appeal before the Supreme Court. Gideon, a poor man from Florida, had been convicted of breaking into a pool hall. He could not afford a lawyer, and none was provided for him. Fortas and a team of attorneys from his firm spent months preparing the appellate brief, and won a unanimous decision from the Supreme Court for Gideon. This decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, solidified the constitutional right of criminal defendants to have legal counsel when charged with any offenses.
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson, now President, persuaded Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg to resign his seat to become Ambassador to the United Nations. He then appointed his longtime friend, Abe Fortas, to the court. On the Court, Fortas was a reliable liberal, authoring the notable opinion in 1969's Tinker v. Des Moines School District accepting the rights of schoolchildren to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Fortas dissented when the Court upheld some public intoxication laws, for example 1968's Powell v. Texas.
When Chief Justice Earl Warren announced his retirement in June 1968, Johnson nominated Fortas to replace Warren as Chief Justice. However, the Warren Court's Constitutional jurisprudence had angered many conservative members of the United States Senate, and the nomination of Fortas, who was generally a reliable liberal vote on the Court, provided the first opportunity for these senators to register their disenchantment with the direction of the Court.
Also controversial was Fortas's acceptance of $15,000 for speaking engagements at the American University law school. While not illegal, the size of the fee raised much concern about the court's insulation from private interests, especially as it was funded by Fortas's former clients and partners. Fortas also faced hostile questioning about his relationship with Lyndon Johnson while on the Court. At his confirmation hearing, Fortas denied continuing as an advisor to Johnson, though White House tapes now prove this to be untrue, as Johnson consulted with Fortas about political matters frequently while Fortas was on the Court.
Fortas's nomination resulted in a five day filibuster led by Republicans and conservative southern Democrats ("Dixiecrats"). A cloture motion to end the filibuster failed. At that time, 67 votes were needed to stop debate (it is now 60). The vote was 45-43, with 10 Republicans and 35 Democrats voting for cloture and 24 Republicans and 19 Democrats voting against cloture. The 12 other Senators, all Democrats, were not present. Fortas then withdrew his name from consideration. The next president, Richard Nixon, a Republican, appointed Warren E. Burger as Chief Justice.
Fortas remained on the bench, but in 1969, a new scandal arose. Fortas had accepted a secret $20,000 retainer from the family foundation of Wall Street financier Louis Wolfson, a friend and former client, in January 1966. Fortas signed a contract with Wolfson's foundation; in return for unspecified advice it was to pay Fortas $20,000 a year for the rest of Fortas's life (and then pay his widow for the rest of her life). Wolfson was under investigation for securities violations at the time and expected that his arrangement with Fortas would help him stave off criminal charges or help him secure a presidential pardon; Fortas denied that he ever helped Wolfson. Wolfson was convicted of violating federal securities laws later that year and spent time in prison, and Fortas returned the retainer. When Chief Justice Earl Warren was informed of the incident by the new Attorney General John N. Mitchell, he persuaded Fortas to resign to protect the reputation of the Court. President Nixon eventually appointed as his replacement Harry A. Blackmun, after two previous nominations failed.
Rebuffed in the wake of his fall by the powerful Washington law firm he had founded, Fortas founded another and maintained a successful law practice until his death in 1982.
Fortas was the author of Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience.
In 1939, he married Carolyn E. Agger, a successful tax lawyer. They had no children.
To this day, Fortas is perhaps best remembered for the filibuster that torpedoed his nomination as Chief Justice, and in 2005 Abe Fortas again became a focus of controversy as the Republicans considered changing Senate rules to eliminate filibusters of judicial appointments, a plan referred to as the "nuclear option." Democrats cited the Fortas filibuster as a precedent for their more recent filibusters. Republicans pointed to differences between the events of 1968 and the Democrats' judicial filibusters during the Bush presidency.