Tagged: Judicial Biography

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F.F. — Make of him what you will, but . . .

Felix Frankfurter

Felix Frankfurter

I want to recommend a relatively new article in the Journal of Supreme Court History. It is impressively researched, commendably thoughtful, and refreshingly balanced. Before doing so, however, permit me to say a few prefatory words.

It is hard to be fair when writing of those with whom we disagree, and harder still when we dislike their personal manner. Arrogant, argumentative, and devious – these are not the words that fair-minded scholars like to use unless the fit is fair. All of which takes us back in time to this man: Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965).

What to make of him?

As a Supreme Court Justice he was, in Mel Urofsky’s words, “a divisive figure whose jurisprudential philosophy is all but ignored today.” Others have been even less kind in their assessment of the temperament and jurisprudence of the Justice from Vienna. While Cass Sunstein has recently labored to revive respect for Justice Frankfurter and his judicial opinions, that effort may prove Sisyphean (save, perhaps, in a few discrete areas involving federal jurisdiction).

Still, there was more to Felix Frankfurter than the life he led on the Court between 1939 and 1962. The trajectory of his career (fueled by hard work, ambition, and brilliance) is an immigrant-come-to-America success story at its best. His work – first with Louis Brandeis and then on his own – to advance the cause of fair and humane labor practices exemplifies the Progressive movement in its glory. Then there was the role he played early on in helping to launch the ACLU. With a mix of courage and insight, he later called for a retrial for Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti by way of an impressive lawyer-like article he published in the Atlantic in 1927; the article was thereafter expanded into a small book. And, of course, there is more, much more, which brings me back to that article I alluded to earlier.

Sujit Raman

Sujit Raman

Sujit Raman (the chief appellate lawyer in Maryland’s U.S. Attorney’s office) has just published an engaging and highly informative article. Its title: “Felix Frankfurter and His Protégés: Re-examining the ‘Happy Hot Dogs.’” It captures Felix in all his complexity and does so with objective nuance. With skilled brevity Raman also sketches the story of the Jewish immigrant’s struggle to assimilate, the Harvard Law student’s meritocratic success, the progressive’s desire to improve government when he went to work for Henry Stimson (first in New York and then in Washington, D.C), and then the Harvard professor’s cultivation of the best and brightest, whom he invited to his Sunday teas.

Above all, Sujit Raman’s real story is about Felix Frankfurter’s “greatest legacy,” namely, the “legions of students he trained and nurtured at the Harvard Law School, . . . who, in their own right, shaped the age in which they lived.” Consistent with that objective, Frankfurter’s “avowed intent as a professor was to instill in his students an interest in public service, and from his earliest days, he began collecting recruits for his crusade.” In time, they would come to be known as Frankfurter’s “Happy Hot Dogs” as Hugh Samuel Johnson tagged them.MTE5NTU2MzE2MjE5NDc1NDY3

Could he be snobbish? Yes. Could he be petty? Yes. Spiteful? Yes. Did he delight in manipulating matters from unseen sidelines? Yes again.

Clearly, F.F. had his psychological warts. Yet, when one steps back and beholds the man and this patch of his life work at a detached distance, he stands rather tall. Why?

Now, to cut to the chase: “Frankfurter was one of the New Deal’s intellectual architects as well as one of its most accomplished draftsmen of policy – yet he had no legislative portfolio or any official position in the Roosevelt Administration.” Moreover, adds Raman, “Frankfurter was the New Deal’s principal recruiting agent. He placed his protégés in all levels of government, and consequently his vision was carried forth, albeit indirectly, by his able lieutenants.” In sum, “the New Deal was in many ways the embodiment and culmination of Frankfurter’s life work.”

James Landis

James Landis

In the span of 28 pages (buttressed by 127 scholarly endnotes), Sujit Raman fills in many of the blanks in the Professor-and-the-New-Deal story. While he is cautious not to exaggerate Frankfurter’s role and influence, Raman’s account makes it difficult to deny the remarkable magnitude of Frankfurter’s unique impact on public law and its operation at a crucial stage in our legal history.

True, the “Happy Hot Dogs” story has been told before and from a variety of perspectives (see, e.g.,  here and here). Even so, Mr. Raman does what others before him have not quite done: he tells the story in a concise yet authoritative way and with enough panache to draw the reader back in history for glimpses into the exciting world of F.F. and his adept protégés – the likes of Thomas G. Corcoran (video here), Benjamin V. CohenJames M. Landis, David Lilienthal, and Charles Wyzanski, among others. They were all part of Frankfurter’s network, all “elite lawyers” hand picked because of their ties to F.F. and their “reformist inclinations.”

Whatever your opinion of Felix Frankfurter, his star may yet brighten anew, though probably not in the universe of Supreme Court history and jurisprudence. His true galaxy was elsewhere – in that realm where the “minds of men” move the gears of government to places only once imagined in classrooms in Cambridge.

Ask your librarian for, or go online or order a copy of, Sujit Raman’s illuminating article in volume 39 (March 2014, #1, pp. 79-106)) of the Journal of Supreme Court History. Better still, join the Supreme Court Historical Society. Either way, it will serve you well.

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FAN 17 (First Amendment News) — New Bio Reveals How Scalia Helped to Save a PBS Station

A soon to be released 650-page biography of Antonin Scalia reveals some interesting tidbits about the Justice and his career as it relates to free speech. The book is titled Scalia: A Court of One (Simon & Schuster, June 10, 2014). Bruce Allen Murphy, the Fred Morgan Kirby Professor of Civil Rights at Lafayette College, is the author of this heavily-researched and well-documented new biography. Professor Murphy’s previous judicial biographies include The Brandeis/Frankfurter Connection: The Secret Political Activities of Two Supreme Court Justices (1982), Fortas: The Rise and Ruin of a Supreme Court Justice (1988), and Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas (2003).

Bruce Allen Murphy

Bruce Allen Murphy

Tellingly, the yet-to-be-distributed book has already been praised and criticized. That said, Murphy’s biography affords a new opportunity to revisit the history of Justice Scalia’s interaction with the First Amendment, both before and during his career on the Court. Readers of this column will recall Scalia’s recent call for law schools to place more emphasis on teaching the First Amendment. Recall, too, the Justice’s repeated criticism of the holding in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.

Turning back the biographical clock, and as Professor Murphy recounts it, in January of 1971 Antonin Scalia (he was 35) went to work as general counsel for the Office of Telecommunications Policy. During Scalia’s tenure there President Nixon “became convinced that the national news and public affairs division of the Public Broadcasting Service . . ., which depended on government funding, was an ‘enemy’ group staffed by relentless liberal journalists. Nixon decided to try to take control of this agency, or, if he could not, to destroy it by cutting off its funding.”

Sometime later, word reportedly came down from the Nixon White House to “get a particular PBS station off the air.” According to an OTP official then working there, “Nino said, ‘hell, write back a memo that says it’s illegal.’ While Scalia acknowledged that [the purported illegality] was not true, he added, ‘Hell, they don’t know that.'” Subsequently, the OTP official “told a reporter that he did precisely what Scalia recommended and the White House soon dropped the issue.”

To be sure, there is more to this story, but I refer readers to the Murphy’s biography to learn how the matter ultimately played out, politics and all.

Before leaving the Murphy biography, readers might be interested to know that he devotes a chapter (#8) to the originalist debate over the meaning of the First Amendment as interpreted by then Circuit Judges Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia in the case of Ollman v. Evans (1984).

More on Justice Scalia

Speaking of Justice Scalia and free speech, the following is a list of his First Amendment free expression majority opinions authored during his tenure on the Roberts Court. Notice the vote margin when he is assigned to write for the Court.

→ Aside: Coming in 2015: A play titled “The Originalist

Federal Court Affirms Right to Videorecord Police 

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