Felix Frankfurter Biography

Supreme Court Justice, Educator, Scholar (1882–1965)
Associate Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter was a noted law scholar who served as the high court's leading exponent of the doctrine of judicial self-restraint.


Felix Frankfurter was born on November 15, 1882, in Vienna, Austria. A graduate of Harvard, he helped found the American Civil Liberties Union. When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933, Frankfurter advised him on New Deal legislation. Frankfurter was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1939. He retired after more than two decades on the bench and died on February 22, 1965 in Washington, D.C.

Early Life

Born in Vienna, Austria on November 15, 1882, future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter came to the United States in his early teens. He grew up poor on New York City's Lower East Side with five siblings. His father did his best to support the family, working as a merchant. Frankfurter came from a learned and religious family with many members who were rabbis over the generations, and he proved to be quite bright in his own right early on. Despite knowing no English in the beginning, Frankfurter managed to excel in his studies in public school.

Frankfurter graduated from the City College of New York in 1902 and went on to attend Harvard Law School, completing his degree in 1906. One of his first jobs as a lawyer was at the office of Henry L. Stimson, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District. Frankfurter served as an assistant to Stimson, whom he greatly admired.

Lawyer and Professor

Frankfurter continued his association with Stimson over the years. Stimson helped him win a position at the Department of War's Bureau of Insular Affairs during President William Howard Taft's administration. Around this same time, Frankfurter became friends with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

After spending 1910 to 1914 in Washington, D.C., Frankfurter returned to Harvard, this time as a faculty member. He taught courses on Constitutional and administrative law. During World War I, Frankfurter returned to Washington to work with Secretary of War Newton Baker as an assistant. He also became chairman of the War Labor Policies Board, overseeing labor disputes across the nation.

To advance the creation of a Jewish state, Frankfurter attended the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. He didn't practice his Jewish faith, but he was a lifelong supporter of Jewish causes. Frankfurter soon returned to work at Harvard. While teaching at the university, he became one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union. He was also an outspoken critic of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, in which two Italian Americans with radical political ties were convicted of murder and robbery.

Supreme Court Justice

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated Frankfurter for the U.S. Supreme Court. Frankfurter found himself challenged by some in his congressional hearing on his work with the ACLU, with one senator asking him about a link between the ACLU and Communism. Frankfurter replied that the organization had "no relation to Communism, except that if a Communist claimed the protection of the Constitution, the American Civil Liberties Union would be within its rights and duty to see that he got that constitutional protection," according to The New York Times.

Frankfurter's nomination was approved that January, and he took the bench later that month. He was the third Jewish Supreme Court justice, following Benjamin Cardozo and Louis Brandeis, with the latter resigning that same year. While he was a champion of civil liberties, Frankfurter supported the limitation or restriction of these liberties in certain cases. He wrote the majority opinion for Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940), which stated that a school district could compel its students to salute the flag. The suit had been filed by a family who objected to the practice on religious grounds. Frankfurter also sided with the majority in Korematsu v. United States (1944), which stated that the internment of Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals during World War II was constitutional. Yet in 1954, Frankfurter supported the groundbreaking decision in Brown v. Board of Education that made school segregation illegal.

Final Years

Frankfurter resigned from his position with the Supreme Court in 1962 after suffering a stroke. The following year, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson. Days after suffering a heart attack, Frankfurter died at the age of 82 on February 22, 1965, in Washington, D.C. He was survived by his wife, Marion, whom he married in 1919.

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