1965 October 4

Abe Fortas Joins Supreme Court

 

Abe Fortas was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Lyndon Johnson and joined the Court on this day. Fortas was an old friend and political ally of LBJ, having served as a lawyer who helped him win his contested 1948 election to the Senate. Johnson persuaded Justice Arthur Goldberg to resign and become Ambassador to the United Nations in order to create a vacancy on the Court. (In those years there was an informal “Jewish seat” on the Court that included Brandeis, Cardozo, Frankfurter, Goldberg, and then Fortas.) Both Goldberg and Fortas were strong supporters of civil liberties, and so Fortas’ appointment did not change the orientation of the Court. Many observers believe that LBJ wanted his friend Fortas on the Court in case there were constitutional challenges to Great Society programs.

Fortas had represented Clarence Gideon in the famous Gideon v. Wainwright case that affirmed a constitutional right to an attorney for felony defendants. Fortas’ important opinions for the Supreme Court included In re Gault (May 15, 1967), which declared many routine practices of juvenile courts unconstitutional; Tinker v. Des Moines (February 24, 1969), which affirmed the free speech rights of public school students; and Epperson v. Arkansas (November 12, 1968), which overturned an Arkansas law banning the teaching of evolution, similar to the Tennessee law in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial (July 10, 1925).

Read: Bruce Allen Murphy, Fortas: The Rise and Ruin of a Supreme Court Justice (1988)

Listen to phone conversations between Fortas and President Lyndon Johnson: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4IN95jwaL4

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