Associate justice and nominee for chief justice who resigned from the Supreme Court in disgrace.
A gifted student, Fortas received a scholarship to study at Yale Law School. After graduating in 1933, Fortas taught at Yale and worked for various New Deal government agencies. He worked full-time for the U.S. government from 1941 to 1946, when he went into private practice. Fortas earned recognition as a brilliant legal mind and as an advocate of liberal causes. He successfully argued the case of Gideon v. Wainwright
Fortas was a close friend of Lyndon B. Johnson,
As an associate justice, Fortas served as an advocate for liberal issues. He provided the fifth and crucial vote in the ruling in the 1966 case of Miranda v. Arizona,
During his years on the Court, Fortas remained in close contact with President Johnson, offering him advice on both foreign policy and domestic issues. In 1968 when Chief Justice Earl Warren resigned, Johnson sought to provide a defense against possible future conservative attacks on his liberal programs by nominating
The Fortas nomination proved to be a disaster for the Democratic Party. Because Johnson was a lame duck, Republicans had everything to gain by slowing the nomination process in the hope that a Republican would be elected to the White House in the upcoming election. Southerners were not mollified by the Thornberry nomination, and several southern senators voiced their antagonism toward Fortas. Senate hearings revealed the depth of opposition to the nomination. Senators expressed their concern that Fortas’s close relationship with the president had constituted a violation of the separation of powers. In addition, Fortas was criticized for his liberal positions.
The September, 1968, revelation that Fortas had received $15,000 from wealthy private individuals for teaching a seminar at American University made little difference, as opposition to Fortas had become so intense that he had no chance of being confirmed. Although the Senate Judiciary Committee approved his nomination, Senate Republicans began a filibuster. Fortas asked Johnson to withdraw his nomination, and Johnson complied with his request on October 1.
Fortas’s trials were not yet over. On May 5, 1969, Life magazine reported that while serving as associate justice, Fortas had accepted $20,000 from the Wolfson Family Foundation for assisting with foundation efforts. Fortas had returned the money after Louis Wolfson was indicted on stock fraud charges. Nonetheless, Fortas’s relationship with Wolfson showed a lack of judgment and pointed to possible ethical violations. Fortas quickly issued an unconvincing statement regarding his dealings with Wolfson. He did not reveal that he and Wolfson had originally signed a contract ensuring him $20,000 a year for life, and $20,000 a year to his wife should she survive him.
Fortas’s enemies, including members of President Richard M. Nixon’s administration who hoped to create a vacancy on the Court, went into action. Members of Congress began discussing impeachment. Despite the enormous pressure and media attention, Fortas struggled to retain his position on the Court. However, Fortas’s fate was sealed when the Justice Department learned of the lifetime contract with Wolfson. On May 14, 1969, Fortas resigned. He continued to practice law after his resignation. In 1982 the final year of his life, he argued a case before the Court.
Although widely recognized as an outstanding lawyer, Fortas showed considerable lack of judgment during his tenure on the Court. His relationship with Johnson went beyond offering advice at times Fortas shared confidential information regarding the operations of the Court. Always concerned with money, he engaged in financial dealings that raised doubts about his ability to serve as an impartial jurist.
Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004. Kalman, Laura. Abe Fortas: A Biography. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990. Murphy, Bruce Allen. Fortas: The Rise and Ruin of a Supreme Court Justice. New York: William Morrow, 1988. Shogan, Robert. A Question of Judgment: The Fortas Case and the Struggle for the Supreme Court. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972. Urofsky, Melvin I. The Warren Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2001.
Gault, In re
Gideon v. Wainwright
Goldberg, Arthur J.
Miranda v. Arizona
Nominations to the Court
Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District