Roberts, Owen J. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During fifteen years on the Supreme Court, Roberts was the swing vote in the struggle between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Court, particularly over New Deal legislation. His critics cite a lack of jurisprudential consistency in his decisions.

Born in southeastern Pennsylvania, Roberts studied at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving a law degree in 1898. He worked first as a private attorney and then as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. In 1924 President Calvin Coolidge appointed Roberts a special U.S. attorney to investigate the Teapot Dome scandal. President Herbert Hoover nominated Roberts to the Supreme Court in 1930 after Hoover’s first nominee, Judge John J. Parker, was not confirmed by the Senate.Hoover, Herbert;nominations to the Court

Owen J. Roberts

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

Roberts joined a conservative Court noted for its skepticism of governmental regulation of business. The Court regularly overturned New DealNew Deal legislation proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roberts’s vote often was the swing vote in the conflict between the Court and the president. His positions seemed to defy a consistent jurisprudential philosophy. In Nebbia v. New York[case]Nebbia v. New York[Nebbia v. New York] (1934), Roberts upheld the state regulation of commerce. In a number of cases, including Panama Refining Co. v. Ryan[case]Panama Refining Co. v. Ryan[Panama Refining Co. v. Ryan] (1935), Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States[case]Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States[Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States] (1935), and United States v. Butler[case]Butler, United States v.[Butler, United States v.] (1936), he joined the Court in voicing opposition to federal economic regulation. The Court’s opposition to Roosevelt’s programs led the president to propose enlarging the Court, the famous Court-packing plan.

In response to public criticism of the Court, Roberts changed his position on the New Deal. In West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish[case]West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish[West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish] (1937), for example, he voted to uphold a state minimum-wage plan. He also voiced his opinion in civil liberties cases, again exhibiting little consistency. In Grovey v. Townsend[case]Grovey v. Townsend[Grovey v. Townsend] (1935), Roberts wrote the opinion upholding the white primary and dissented when the Court struck it down in Smith v. Allwright[case]Smith v. Allwright[Smith v. Allwright] (1944). He wrote the Court opinion in Cantwell v. Connecticut[case]Cantwell v. Connecticut[Cantwell v. Connecticut] (1940), freeing a Jehovah’s Witness convicted for soliciting contributions without a permit. In Korematsu v. United States[case]Korematsu v. United States[Korematsu v. United States] (1944), Roberts’s dissent indicated his opposition to the forced relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Further Reading
  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Friedman, Leon, and Fred Israel, eds. The Justices of the Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.
  • Hendel, Samuel. Charles Evans Hughes and the Supreme Court. New York: King’s Crown Press, Columbia University, 1951.
  • Leonard, Charles A. A Search for a Judicial Philosophy: Mr. Justice Roberts and the Constitutional Revolution of 1937. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1971.
  • Parrish, Michael E. The Hughes Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2002.
  • Pearson, Drew, and Robert Allen. The Nine Old Men. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1936.
  • Renstrom., Peter G. The Stone Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2001.

Butler, United States v.

Cantwell v. Connecticut

Court-packing plan

Korematsu v. United States

Nebbia v. New York

New Deal

Panama Refining Co. v. Ryan

Parker, John J.

Roosevelt, Franklin D.

Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States

Smith v. Allwright

West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish

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