Justice Owen Josephus Roberts

Justice Owen Josephus Roberts joined the U.S. Supreme Court on June 2, 1930, replacing Justice Edward Terry Sanford. Roberts was born on May 2, 1875 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1895 at just 20 years old. He stayed at the University of Pennsylvania for law school and graduated first in his class in 1898. Roberts later founded a law firm in Philadelphia, which still exists today. He also helped investigate the Teapot Dome bribery scandal in the 1920s.

On May 9, 1930, President Herbert Hoover nominated Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on May 20, and he took the judicial oath about two weeks later. During his tenure, the Court frequently reviewed New Deal measures implemented by President Franklin Roosevelt, as well as other economic regulations. Roberts played a central role in these cases because he was a swing vote on the Court.

Known as the Four Horsemen, Justices James Clark McReynolds, Pierce Butler, George Sutherland, and Willis Van Devanter generally sought to limit the power of the government to intervene in the economy. An opposing group called the Three Musketeers contained Justices Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, and Harlan Fiske Stone, who tended to view government power more broadly. Like Roberts, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes was a moderate and a potential swing vote. Roberts often joined the Four Horsemen in cases involving economic regulations, including a 5-4 decision in 1936 that struck down a minimum wage law. However, he sided with the Three Musketeers (and Hughes) a year later in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, upholding a very similar law.

This decision was announced a month after Roosevelt proposed his plan to expand the Supreme Court, which would have allowed him to appoint more Justices sympathetic to his goals. Many observers suspected that Roberts changed his position as a "switch in time to save nine." Before Roosevelt announced his plan, though, Roberts already had indicated that he intended to uphold the law challenged in West Coast Hotel. Regardless of his motives, the decision marked a turning point. The Court would give the government a freer hand in economic regulations moving forward. Meanwhile, the Senate rejected the court packing plan that summer, and no President has sought to expand the Court since then.

During the Second World War, Roosevelt appointed Roberts to lead the investigation of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He also chaired a commission that promoted the preservation of cultural properties in war zones. Roberts dissented from the infamous 1944 decision of Korematsu v. U.S., in which the Court upheld the constitutionality of the Japanese-American internment camps.

Roberts retired from the Supreme Court on July 31, 1945 and was replaced by Justice Harold Hitz Burton. During retirement, Roberts served as the Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School between 1948 and 1951. He died on May 17, 1955 in Pennsylvania.

Selected Opinions by Justice Roberts:

Dixie Pine Products Co. v. Commissioner (1944)

Topic: Taxes

To truly reflect the income of a given year, all the events must occur in that year that fix the amount and the fact of the taxpayer's liability for items of indebtedness deducted though not paid. This cannot be the case when the liability is contingent and contested by the taxpayer.

Betts v. Brady (1942)

Topic: Criminal Trials & Prosecutions

Under the circumstances, the refusal of a state court to appoint counsel to represent an indigent defendant at a trial in which he was convicted of robbery did not deny him due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. (This decision was overruled by Gideon v. Wainwright below.)

Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940)

Topic: Free Speech

When a clear and present danger of riot, disorder, interference with traffic on the public streets, or other immediate threat to public safety, peace, or order appears, the power of the state to prevent or punish is obvious.

U.S. v. Butler (1936)

Topic: Powers of Congress

The power to tax and spend is a separate and distinct power. Its exercise is not confined to the fields committed to Congress by the other enumerated grants of power, but it is limited by the requirement that it shall be exercised to provide for the general welfare of the United States.

Nebbia v. New York (1934)

Topic: Due Process

The Due Process Clause conditions the exertion of regulatory power by requiring that the end shall be accomplished by methods consistent with due process, that the regulation shall not be unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious, and that the means selected shall have a real and substantial relation to the object sought to be attained.