Born on June 19, 1910, in Memphis, Tennessee, Abe Fortas served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1965 to 1969. Nominated to replace Earl Warren as chief justice by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, Fortas became the first nominee for that post since 1795 to fail to win Senate approval. The following year, he became the first Supreme Court justice to resign under threat of impeachment.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, on June 19, 1910, Abraham Fortas has the dubious distinction of being the first U.S. Supreme Court justice to resign in the midst of a scandal. Fortas came from modest beginnings. Both of his parents were Jewish immigrants who ran a store together, with his father also working as a cabinet maker. Fortas was the youngest of the couple's five children.
A bright student, Abe Fortas excelled at his studies. He graduated at the top of his class at Southwestern College (later renamed Rhodes College) in Memphis. After graduating in 1930, Fortas attended Yale Law School, where he served as editor of the university's law journal. He completed his law degree in 1933, joining the law school's faculty soon after. While teaching at Yale, Fortas also began work for the newly formed Securities and Exchange Commission. He would take a full-time post with the commission in the late 1930s.
In 1939, Abe Fortas became general counsel for the Public Works Administrative. In 1941, he joined the Department of the Interior, becoming the government office's undersecretary the following year. Not long after World War II ended, Fortas went into private practice, co-founding the prominent Washington law firm of Arnold, Fortas & Porter.
Around this same time, Fortas befriended Texas politician Lyndon B. Johnson, to whom he became a trusted adviser when Johnson became president in 1963. Two years later, Johnson picked Fortas for the U.S. Supreme Court; he wanted Fortas to replace Arthur Goldberg, who resigned to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Controversial Supreme Court Justice
Fortas joined the court as an associate justice in 1965. The following year, he was among the judges who supported the landmark decision in Miranda v. Arizona, which made it mandatory for the police to inform suspects of their rights when being placed under arrest. In 1967, Fortas ruled in favor of upholding the rights of due process for juveniles in the famous Gault case.
Johnson nominated Fortas to take over for retiring Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1968. During a Congressional hearing on his nomination, Fortas found himself under intense scrutiny from conservative legislators. Some objected to him receiving $15,000 in speaking fees for lectures he gave at American University. The money for these talks had been raised through contributions from roughly 40 companies. Senator Strom Thurmond was among those that questioned whether Fortas would be able to be objective if these firms had cases in front of the Supreme Court.
The conservatives in the Senate refused to end the debate on Fortas, effectively filibustering the nomination. Fortas withdrew himself from consideration for the chief justice post, which was eventually filled by Warren E. Burger. He stayed on at the court as an associate justice, but he soon faced another controversy.
Fortas was later discovered to have accepted a dubious position from the Wolfson Foundation. In exchange for $20,000 per year for life, he was to provide counsel to the foundation, which was run by the family of Wall Street financial giant Louis Wolfson. After Wolfson was indicted on charges of securities violations, Fortas returned the one payment he received from the foundation. But this secret deal severely damaged Fortas's reputation and credibility. Under tremendous public pressure, he resigned from the court in May 1969.
After resigning from the Supreme Court, Abe Fortas returned to private practice. He remained in Washington, D.C., for the remainder of his career, dying there on April 5, 1982, at the age of 71. He was survived by his wife, Carolyn Agger, a successful lawyer in her own right. The couple never had children.
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