Robert H. Jackson Biography

Government Official, Lawyer, Supreme Court Justice (1892–1954)
Robert H. Jackson was a Supreme Court Justice from 1941-54, and was also the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials.


Born in 1892, Robert H. Jackson eventually established himself as a successful lawyer in New York State. He was appointed to federal office by President Roosevelt in 1934 and first served as general counsel to the IRS. Jackson was a great defender of procedural due process and served as a Supreme Court Justice from 1941-54.  He is also known as the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. He died on October 9, 1954.

Early Life and Career

Born on February 13, 1892, in Spring Creek, Pennsylvania, Robert H. Jackson moved to Frewsburg, New York as a child. After graduating from high school in 1910, Jackson continued his studies at a high school in nearby Jamestown, where he was also mentored by two lawyers.

Jackson attended Albany Law School for a year and then continued his legal apprenticeship. By 1913 he passed the bar and opened his own practice in Jamestown. Jackson married Irene Alice Gerhardt in the spring of 1916. The couple had two children together.

A die-hard Democrat, Jackson was active in local politics. He became a friend and adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt during the latter's bid for the governorship of New York. After winning the election, Roosevelt appointed Jackson to serve on a committee to study the state's judicial process.

Government Official

Roosevelt continued to rely on Jackson once he reached the White House in 1933. The following year, Jackson was appointed general counsel to the Bureau of Internal Revenue. He successfully handled a case against Andrew Mellon for tax evasion during his time there.

Over the years, Jackson held a number of other legal posts. He was an assistant U.S. attorney and solicitor general before being named U.S. attorney general in 1940. Jackson's tenure in the nation's top legal spot was brief, however. Roosevelt nominated Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1941.

Supreme Court Justice

During his time on the court, Jackson turned out to be more of a supporter of judicial restraint than judicial activism. He did, however, champion the rights of individuals and the separation of church and state. In Edwards v. California (1941), Jackson helped strike down the California law that made it a misdemeanor for a person to enter the state without economic means. He wrote a dissenting opinion in United States v. Ballard (1944), which let a mail fraud conviction stand against a man who established his own religious movement and claimed to have healing powers. "Prosecutions of this character easily could degenerate into religious persecution," Jackson wrote.

In 1945, Jackson took a leave from the court to serve his country in a different capacity. President Harry S. Truman appointed him chief counsel for the war crimes trials held at the end of World War II. Known as the Nuremberg trials, Jackson acted as chief prosecutor in the cases of such infamous Nazi figures as Hermann Göring and Rudolf Hess. He was widely criticized for his poor cross-examinations of some of the suspects during the trials.

When Jackson returned to the court in 1946, he and Justice Hugo Black were in consideration to replace the late Harlan Fiske Stone as chief justice. Jackson and Black had an adversarial relationship, and each threatened to leave the court if the other was appointed to the post. President Truman decided on Fred Vinson instead. 

In the early 1950s, Jackson's health began to decline. He suffered a heart attack in March 1954, but he refused to stay away from court for too long. Jackson was on hand to support the end of school segregation with the decision on Brown v. Board of Education (1954). He died on October 9, 1954, in Washington, D.C.

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