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Abe Fortas

Supreme Court Justice


Abraham Fortes was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on June 19, 1910, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia (father) and Lithuania (mother). After graduating from Southwestern University in 1930 he entered Yale University Law School, from which he graduated second in his class in 1933. From 1934 to 1939 he held a variety of positions in the Securities and Exchange Commission, became General Counsel to the Public Works Administration in 1939, was appointed director of the Division of Power in the Department of the Interior in 1941, and became Under Secretary of the Interior in 1942. After World War II, he and two associates established a partnership in Washington, D.C., specializing in corporate law.

Throughout the mid- to late-1940's and early-1950's, Fortas defended victims of McCarthyism and provided behind-the-scenes advice to Democratic politicians. In 1948, he successfully represented Lyndon Baines Johnson when his 87-vote victory in the Texas Democratic primary election was challenged. He was nominated to the Supreme Court on August 10, 1965, and was sworn in on October 3.

In June 1968, Chief Justice Earl Warren announced that he would retire from the Supreme Court upon confirmation of his successor. President Johnson subsequently nominated Fortas as Warren's successor, as well as Homer Thornberry to succeed Fortas, but both nominations quickly fell victim to a Congress that was less than friendly towards the President. In July Fortas became the first sitting Justice ever to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, but the Senate went into its summer recess without voting on his nomination. In September, Senator Robert Griffin learned that Fortas had accepted $15,000 to give a series of summer lectures at American University Law School and that the money had been raised by his former partners and clients. In October, while the Senate was locked in a filibuster over his nomination, Fortas asked that his nomination be withdrawn. President Johnson complied with the request, and Fortas resumed his seat as an Associate Justice.

In 1969, Life magazine reported that Fortas had accepted and then returned a $20,000 fee from a charitable organization controlled by the family of an indicted stock manipulator. Already facing accusations that he had lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings, Fortas resigned from the bench on May 14, 1969, without admitting to any wrongdoing.

After leaving the Supreme Court, Fortas tried to rejoin the law firm he had co-founded but his former partners repudiated him. He started his own private practice in 1970 and continued to practice law until his death, which came on April 5, 1982.

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This page was last updated on June 18, 2018.