Abe Fortas

Infobox Judge
name = Abe Fortas

imagesize =
caption =
office = Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court
termstart = October 4 1965
termend = May 14 1969
nominator = Lyndon Johnson
appointer =
predecessor = Arthur Goldberg
successor = Harry Blackmun
birthdate = birth date|1910|6|19|mf=y
birthplace = Memphis, Tennessee
deathdate = death date and age|1982|4|5|1910|6|19|mf=y
deathplace = Washington, D.C.
nationality = flag|United States
spouse = Carolyn E. Agger
alma_mater = Yale Law School

Abraham Fortas (June 19, 1910April 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.

Early years

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, graduating from South Side High School in 1926. He then attended Southwestern at Memphis (now known as Rhodes College), graduating 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. In 1935, Fortas married Carolyn E. Agger, who would become a successful tax lawyer. (They had no children.)

Early government service

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. In 1945, Fortas was granted a leave of absence from the Department of Interior to join the armed forces. However, according to his official biography, within a month, Fortas was discharged because of an arrested case of eye tuberculosis. Later in 1945, he was appointed by President Harry Truman as an advisor to the U.S. delegation during the organizational meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco and at the 1946 General Assembly meeting in London. [" [http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/lib_hist/Courts/supreme/judges/af-bio.html] " Retrieved 2007-08-4.]

Private practice

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 U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black to overturn the ruling. Johnson became a U.S. senator, winning the general election.

During the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Fortas came to widespread notice as the defense attorney for Owen Lattimore. In 1950, Fortas often clashed with Senator Joseph McCarthy when representing Lattimore before the Tydings Committee and later before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee.

"Durham v. United States"

Fortas was known in Washington circles to have a serious interest in psychiatry, still a controversial science at the time. In 1953 this expertise led to his appointment to represent the indigent Monte W. Durham, whose insanity defense had been rejected at trial two years earlier, before the Court of Appeals. Durham’s defense had been denied because the District Court had applied the M’Naghten Rules, requiring that the defense prove the accused didn’t know the difference between right and wrong for an insanity plea to be accepted. Adopted by the British House of Lords in 1843, generations before modern psychiatry, this test was still in near universal use in U.S. jurisprudence over a century later. The effect of this standard was to exclude psychiatric and psychological testimony almost entirely from the legal process. In a critical turning point for U.S. criminal law, the Court of Appeals accepted Fortas’ call to abandon the M’Naghten Rule and allow for testimony and evidence regarding defendants’ mental state. see|Durham rule

The Gideon case

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.

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

In 1965, Lyndon Johnson, then President, persuaded Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg to resign his seat to become Ambassador to the United Nations. He then appointed Abe Fortas, a longtime friend, to the court. On the Court, Fortas was generally a reliable liberal vote, and was particularly concerned with children's rights. Fortas dissented when the Court upheld some public intoxication laws, for example 1968's "Powell v. Texas". In 1968, Fortas authored a book titled, "Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience".

Children's and students' rights

During his time on the Court, Fortas led a revolution in the U.S. juvenile justice, broadly extending the Court’s logic on due process rights and procedure to legal minors and overturning the existing paradigm of "parens patriae", in which the state had usurped the parental role. Authoring the majority decision in "Kent v. United States" (1966), the first Supreme Court case that evaluated a juvenile court procedure, Fortas suggested that the existing system might be the “the worst of both worlds.” At that time, the state was held to have a paternal interest in the child rather than a prosecutorial one, a concept that dispensed with the obligation to provide a child accused of a crime with the opportunity to make a defense. Yet the courts were empowered to decide, in the interests of the child, to have the child incarcerated for lengthy periods or otherwise severely punished.

Fortas elaborated on his critique the following year in the case of "In re Gault" (1967). The case concerned a fifteen year old who had been sentenced to six years (until his majority) in Arizona's State Industrial School for making an obscene phone call to his neighbor. Had he been an adult the maximum punishment he could have received was a $50 fine or two months in jail. Fortas used the case to launch a ferocious attack on the juvenile justice system and "parens patriae". His majority opinion was a landmark, extending the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of right to sufficient notice, right to counsel, right to confrontation of witnesses, and right against self-incrimination to certain juvenile proceedings.

Two years later, Fortas authored another landmark in children’s rights with the decision in "Tinker v. Des Moines School District" (1969), a case involving 2 high school students and 1 junior high school student who had been suspended for wearing black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. Extending First Amendment rights to school students for the first time, Fortas wrote that “neither students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate”.

"Epperson v. Arkansas"

In 1968, Fortas convinced the court to accept the appeal of Little Rock High School teacher Sue Epperson who had challenged Arkansas’ anti-evolution law with the support of the state teachers union. Epperson had won the case, but the Arkansas Supreme Court had overturned the ruling. Although the Court agreed quickly after hearing the case that the Arkansas ruling should be reversed, there was no consensus as to why, with most Justices favoring fairly narrow grounds. Fortas was the architect and author of the broader landmark majority opinion that eventually emerged banning religiously based creation narratives from public school science curricula.

Nomination to be Chief Justice

When Chief Justice Earl Warren announced his retirement in June 1968, Johnson nominated Associate Justice 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 provided the first opportunity for these senators to register their disenchantment with the direction of the Court. Fortas was the first Chief Justice nominee ever to appear before the Senate, and he faced hostile questioning about his relationship with Lyndon Johnson. Johnson had consulted with Fortas about political matters frequently while Fortas was on 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. Upon learning of this problem, President Johnson decided to help Fortas win a majority vote, but only as a face-saving measure, according to Johnson aide Joseph Califano:

The debate on Fortas's nomination had lasted for less than a week, led by Republicans and conservative southern Democrats, or so-called "Dixiecrats". Several senators who opposed Fortas asserted at the time that they were not conducting a perpetual filibuster, and were not trying to prevent a final up-or-down vote from occurring. [Cornyn, John. " [http://committeeforjustice.org/contents/reading/cornyn.pdf Our Broken Judicial Confirmation Process and the Need for Filibuster Reform] ," "Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy", Volume 27, page 181 (2003). Retrieved 2007-02-16.]

In 1968, Senate rules required two-thirds of senators present to stop a debate (nowadays 60% of the full Senate is needed). The 45 to 43 cloture vote to end the Fortas debate included 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.

The "New York Times" wrote of the 45 to 43 cloture roll call: "Because of the unusual crosscurrents underlying today's vote, it was difficult to determine whether the pro-Fortas supporters would have been able to muster the same majority in a direct confirmation vote." [Babington, Charles.

" [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A45149-2005Mar17.html Filibuster Precedent? Democrats Point to '68 and Fortas] ", "Washington Post" (2005-03-18). Retrieved 2007-02-16.] The next president, Richard Nixon, a Republican, would appoint Warren E. Burger as Chief Justice.


Fortas remained on the bench, but in 1969, a new scandal arose. Fortas had accepted a $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 it is alleged that he expected that his arrangement with Fortas would help him stave off criminal charges or help him secure a presidential pardon. Fortas recused himself from Wolfson's case when it came before the court and had returned the retainer. Fortas denied that he ever helped Wolfson and there is no evidence that he did. Wolfson was convicted of violating federal securities laws later that year and spent time in prison.

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 and avoid lengthy impeachment proceedings, which were in their preliminary stages. President Nixon eventually appointed as his replacement Harry A. Blackmun, after two previous nominations failed.

Later years

Rebuffed in the wake of his fall by the powerful Washington law firm he had founded, Fortas founded another, Fortas and Koven, and maintained a successful law practice until his death in 1982.


External links

* [http://writ.news.findlaw.com/dean/20050506.html Hatching a New Filibuster Precedent] — Findlaw article by John Dean on the Fortas nomination filibuster.
* [http://www.michaelariens.com/ConLaw/justices/fortas.htm Supreme Court Justices — Abe Fortas]

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Abe Fortas — Abraham Fortas (19 juin 1910–5 avril 1982) était un associé de justice de la Cour suprême des États Unis. Il effectua son travail du 4 octobre 1965 jusqu au 14 mai 1969, lorsqu il fut contraint à la démission après avoir accepté de recevoir une… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Abe Fortas — Richter Abe Fortas Abe Fortas (* 19. Juni 1910 in Memphis, Tennessee; † 5. April 1982 in Washington, D.C.) war ein Richter am Obersten Gerichtshof der Vereinigten Staaten. Biografie Der Sohn eines …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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  • FORTAS, ABE — (1910–1982), U.S. lawyer and Supreme Court justice. Fortas was born in Memphis, Tennessee, son of a cabinetmaker. A brilliant student, he graduated from Southwestern College (1930) and Yale Law School (1933), where he was Law Journal editor. Upon …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • Fortas, Abe — born June 19, 1910, Memphis, Tenn., U.S. died April 6, 1982, Washington, D.C. U.S. jurist. He graduated from Yale University Law School (1933), where he studied under William O. Douglas before following him to the Securities and Exchange… …   Universalium

  • Fortas, Abe — (b. 1910)    US Supreme Court judge. A southerner from Memphis, Tennessee, Fortas was the son of a cabinet maker. Upon completing his law studies, he taught at Yale Law School before entering government service. During the war years, 1942–6, he… …   Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament

  • Fortas, Abe — (19 jun. 1910, Memphis, Tenn., EE.UU.–6 abr. 1982, Washington, D.C.). Jurista estadounidense. Se graduó en la escuela de derecho de la Universidad de Yale (1933), donde estudió con William O. Douglas antes de seguirlo al Securities and Exchange… …   Enciclopedia Universal

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  • Fortas,Abraham — For·tas (fôrʹtəs), Abraham. Known as “Abe.” 1910 1982. American jurist who served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1965 1969) but resigned over a public controversy about his private finances. * * * …   Universalium

  • Fortas — /fawr teuhs/, n. Abe, 1910 1982, U.S. lawyer, government official, and jurist: associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court 1965 69. * * * …   Universalium

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