Justice Abe Fortas

Justice Abe Fortas joined the U.S. Supreme Court on October 4, 1965, replacing Justice Arthur Goldberg. Fortas was born on June 19, 1910 in Memphis, Tennessee. He attended Southwestern College in Memphis (now Rhodes College), graduating first in his class in 1930. Fortas then received his legal education from Yale Law School, where he graduated second in his class in 1933 after serving as the editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal.

Fortas held a teaching position at Yale Law School for much of the 1930s, while working for federal agencies such as the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission. He eventually left Yale to pursue a full-time government career, and he became Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1942. Fortas briefly served in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War but was discharged due to an eye condition. Soon after the war ended, he entered private practice in Washington, D.C. Fortas successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1963 case of Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the Court ruled that a state must appoint a free attorney for a defendant who cannot afford their own.

On July 28, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson nominated Fortas to the Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on August 11, and he took the judicial oath early in the fall. Fortas continued a close relationship with Johnson after taking his seat. Among other dubious activities, he attended White House staff meetings and told Johnson about the secret deliberations of the Court.

Fortas helped shape First Amendment law with a pair of decisions involving public schools. He wrote the majority opinion in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, holding that public school students had a First Amendment right to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The legal test developed by Fortas in Tinker continues to shape review of free speech cases involving students. He also wrote for the Court in Epperson v. Arkansas, striking down a law that prohibited teaching evolution in public schools.

In 1968, Johnson nominated Fortas for Chief Justice after the resignation of Earl Warren. The hearings over the nomination, which Johnson eventually withdrew, exposed Fortas’ close ties to the President and a large payment by past clients of his former law firm for teaching summer classes at the American University law school. Life magazine then reported in the following May that Fortas had accepted a $20,000 fee from the family foundation of Louis Wolfson, a financier who was later convicted of a securities crime. Although Fortas had returned the fee, he could not escape the ensuing scandal.

Fortas resigned on May 14, 1969 and was eventually replaced by Justice Harry Blackmun. Meanwhile, he returned to private practice, occasionally arguing cases before the Supreme Court. Fortas died on April 5, 1982 in Washington, D.C.

Selected Opinions by Justice Fortas:

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)

Topic: Free Speech

A student may express their opinions, even on controversial subjects, if they do so without materially and substantially interfering with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school, and without colliding with the rights of others. However, conduct by a student that materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others is not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.

Epperson v. Arkansas (1968)

Topic: Religion

A state could not prohibit teachers in state-supported schools and universities from teaching or using a textbook that teaches the theory of evolution.

Brenner v. Manson (1966)

Topic: Patents

One may patent only that which is useful, and the requirement that a chemical process be useful is not satisfied by a showing that the compound yielded belongs to a class of compounds that scientists are screening for possible uses.