Jackson, Robert H. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During his thirteen years on the Supreme Court, Jackson wrote eloquent defenses of free expression in some cases, while in others he upheld state power to suppress speech and other freedoms. His opinions were individualistic, pragmatic, hard to predict, and middle-of-the-road.

The son of a hotel and livery stable owner, Jackson grew up in Frewsburg, New York. After graduation from high school, he worked as a clerk in a law office in Jamestown, New York, a small upstate town, and became active in Democratic Party politics. After a year of study at Albany Law School, Jackson returned to his clerkship and passed the bar in 1913. He was the last justice to qualify for the bar as an apprentice rather than graduating from law school. Jackson established a successful and profitable general law practice in Jamestown and became active in the state bar association.Roosevelt, Franklin D.;nominations to the Court

Robert H. Jackson

(Harris and Ewing/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

In a heavily Republican area, Jackson, at the age of twenty-one, was elected Democratic state committee member. In this role, he served as an adviser on federal patronage to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt in the administration of President Woodrow Wilson. When Roosevelt was governor of New York from 1928 to 1932, Jackson again served as his informal adviser. During Roosevelt’s 1932 presidential campaign, Jackson electioneered for him throughout the state. In 1934 Jackson went to Washington, D.C., as general counsel for the Bureau of Internal Revenue. He subsequently served as assistant attorney general for the tax and then the antitrust divisions in the Department of Justice. In 1938 Roosevelt appointed him solicitor general, and in 1940 Jackson became a member of Roosevelt’s cabinet as attorney general. Jackson’s extensive political and administrative experience gave him a deeper insight into the political process of the government than many of his colleagues.

Appointment to the Court

In June, 1941, Roosevelt, who had discussed the possible appointment of Jackson to the chief justiceship before deciding to elevate Associate Justice Harlan Fiske Stone to that post, nominated Jackson as an associate justice. By the time of Jackson’s appointment, the Supreme Court had virtually completed its transition in terms of constitutional doctrine. The social and economic changes championed by the New Deal were for the most part accomplished. The Court, with a new majority of Roosevelt appointees, went about determining how the dominant liberal view would be applied in deciding cases that increasingly raised questions of civil liberties. As associate justice, Jackson, for the most part, maintained an ideological middle ground between the libertarian judicial activists led by justices Hugo L. Black and William O. Douglas and the far right in the Court alignment. He frequently agreed with the moderate conservative views of Justice Felix Frankfurter, although they differed on such matters as judicial supremacy and the scope of interpreting the Bill of Rights.

Jackson was a man of solid and outstanding talents, but the contrasts and contrarieties of his character were great. From June, 1945, through October, 1946, Jackson, at the request of President Harry S Truman, served as chief counsel for the United States in the Nuremberg War TrialsNuremberg War Trials (which he described as the most satisfying and gratifying experience of his life) and did not sit with the Court. While Jackson was in Nuremberg, Chief Justice Stone died, and Truman considered Jackson and Black as possible successors.

In the untoward verbal battle that followed, both Jackson and Black threatened to resign from the Court if the president nominated the other. Jackson made public details of a feud with Black that originated in the Court’s hearing of the Jewel Ridge Coal Corp. v. Local No. 6167, United Mine Workers of America[case]Jewel Ridge Coal Corp. v. Local No. 6167, United Mine Workers of America[Jewel Ridge Coal Corp. v. Local No. 6167, United Mine Workers of America] (1945) and that called into question the Court’s impartiality. This controversy embarrassed Jackson, Black, and the Court, and Truman nominated his loyal friend Fred M. Vinson to be chief justice. Black was conciliatory when Jackson returned to the Court for the October, 1946, term. In 1954 Jackson was hospitalized with a serious heart condition. Nevertheless, he continued his work on the Court and took part in the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision. A few days after the beginning of the 1954 term, Jackson died.

Particular Rights

Jackson was accused of being erratic in his civil liberties opinions. He frequently espoused judicial self-restraint, but he was the author of memorable opinions about the values of the First Amendment. He wrote for the majority in striking down a compulsory flag salute in public schools in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette[case]West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette[West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette] (1943), noting that the purpose of the Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy. His opinion was in stark contrast to Frankfurter’s dissenting plea for judicial self-restraint. In Ballard v. United States[case]Ballard v. United States v.[Ballard v. United States] (1944), Jackson would have dismissed the indictment against an offbeat religious group in a mail fraud case and avoided judicially examining other people’s faiths.

After his return from the Nuremberg trials, Jackson seemed more concerned with the need to balance freedom and public order. When the Court reversed a conviction for breach of peace in Terminiello v. Chicago[case]Terminiello v. Chicago[Terminiello v. Chicago] (1949), Jackson, in dissent, worried that the majority’s doctrinaire view might convert the Bill of Rights into a suicide pact. During the McCarthy era, Jackson concurred in upholding federal anticommunist measures in Dennis v. United States[case]Dennis v. United States[Dennis v. United States] (1951) and American Communications Association v. Douds[case]American Communications Association v. Douds[American Communications Association v. Douds] (1950). The pragmatic character of his free speech votes stemmed from his attentiveness to the circumstances of each case.


Several of Jackson’s judicial restraintist values derived from his view of the federal system. Although he was willing to selectively incorporate Bill of Rights protections to apply to the states if they were fundamental to liberty and justice, Jackson’s view of the federal system limited his willingness to see the states forced into a common mold by judicial action in criminal proceedings under the Fourteenth Amendment due process clause. On the other hand, Jackson was an activist in restricting state legislation when challenged as conflicting with an unexercised federal commerce power. He interpreted dormant commerce power in such a way as to restrict efforts under state taxing and police powers to deal with local matters affecting interstate commerce.

In Edwards v. California[case]Edwards v. California[Edwards v. California] (1941), Jackson concurred in the Court’s use of the federal commerce power to strike down the state’s law against immigrants from Oklahoma and added that travel between states was a privilege of U.S. citizenship. In Wickard v. Filburn[case]Wickard v. Filburn[Wickard v. Filburn] (1942), Jackson’s opinion for the Court upheld the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 and further extended the federal commerce power to regulate the production and consumption of wheat that was never marketed. In the review of administrative determinations, Jackson also was more of an activist than a majority of his colleagues.

In short, it is difficult to associate Jackson’s views with any set of doctrines that neatly explain them all. He was willing to grant much validity to various judicial doctrines, but he was unwilling to follow any of them to the point where they obscured the practical effects. Jackson apparently was forced to the right of the Court by the sweeping views of his more libertarian colleagues although he did not like it. Jackson possessed an acute mind and wrote with a pithy, brilliant style punctuated with pungent and memorable phrases. At his best, his prose has rarely been matched in sheer force and persuasiveness.

Constitutional Philosophy

In his history of the Court, The Struggle for Judicial Supremacy (1941), Jackson described the existence of a restraintist philosophy of the judiciary’s place in government at the time of his appointment to the bench. He advocated narrowing the limits of the Court’s jurisdiction in contrast to the activists’ expansionist views. In the posthumously published The Supreme Court in the American System of Government (1955), Jackson wrote that the task of a justice was to maintain the system of balance upon which free government is based. According to Jackson, the Court is the most detached, dispassionate, and trustworthy custodian that the U.S. system affords for the translation of abstract doctrines into concrete constitutional commands. Jackson viewed the judiciary as the branch of government most qualified to correct the inadequacies of the political process and the one least able to make needed adjustments among competing social claims.

Further Reading
  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Belknap, Michal R. The Vinson Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.
  • Gerhart, Eugene. Robert H. Jackson: Country Lawyer, Supreme Court Justice, America’s Advocate. New York: Hein, 2003.
  • Hockett, Jeffrey D. New Deal Justice: The Constitutional Jurisprudence of Hugo L. Black, Felix Frankfurter, and Robert H. Jackson. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.
  • Jackson, Robert H. The Supreme Court in the American System of Government. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955.
  • Renstrom., Peter G. The Stone Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2001.
  • Schubert, Glendon, ed. Dispassionate Justice: A Synthesis of the Judicial Opinions of Robert H. Jackson. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969.
  • Urofsky, Melvin I. The Warren Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2001.

American Communications Association v. Douds

Ballard v. United States

Dennis v. United States

Edwards v. California

Extrajudicial activities


Judicial self-restraint

New Deal

Roosevelt, Franklin D.

Terminiello v. Chicago

West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette

Wickard v. Filburn

Categories: History