Felix Frankfurter

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Felix Frankfurter
Former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
From: January 20, 1939 – August 28, 1962
Nominator Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Predecessor Benjamin Cardozo
Successor Arthur Goldberg
Party Independent
Spouse(s) Marion Denman
Religion Jewish

Felix Frankfurter (November 15, 1882 – February 22, 1965) was a highly influential law professor at Harvard and an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1939–62). A liberal in the 1920s and 1930s, he was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1938. He moved sharply to the right as a Supreme Court Justice.


He was born in Vienna to a wealthy, well educated Jewish family that came to New York in 1894. Although German was his native language, the youth fell in love with English, attended public schools and graduated from City College in 1902. He excelled at Harvard Law School where he later became a professor of law.

He began his career as a Republican and an aide to Henry Stimson the U.S. Attorney in New York. He aided Stimson in his losing campaign for governor in 1910. Stimson then became Secretary of War and named Frankfurter the chief legal officer of the Bureau of Insular Affairs, having jurisdiction over American territorial possessions. A brilliant analyst with a strong interest in public policy, Frankfurter became a top advisor to Stimson on many major issues. He carried over into the Wilson Administration but resigned in 1914 to become Byrne Professor of Administrative Law at Harvard Law School.

During World War I, he took leave and became a major in the Army, serving in the judge advocate's legal affairs department. He became secretary and counsel to the President's Mediation Commission, which dealt with labor stoppages in war industries. In 1918 he moved up to become chairman of the interdepartmental War Labor Policies Board, where one of his colleagues was Franklin D. Roosevelt, the assistant secretary who in effect was running the Navy Department. Frankfurter returned to Harvard at war's end.

Harvard Professor

Every year Frankfurter sent top students to be clerks for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis; he was especially close to Brandeis, who gave him a secret cash subsidy.

Sacco and Vanzetti

In the 1920s Frankfurter was the leading champion of Sacco and Vanzetti, who he claimed had been falsely convinced of murder.[1] Recent scholarship indicates they were in fact guilty, but at the time the episode drove some liberals far to the left, such as John Dos Passos.[2]

As Noel Field would later write, "The shock of the Sacco-Vanzetti executions drove me leftward."[3]

Chief Justice William Howard Taft said Frankfurter "seems to be closely in touch with every Bolshevist, Communist movement in this country."[4]

New Deal

To the surprise of his friends Frankfurter turned down the position of Solicitor General in 1933 and remained at Harvard. He continued to work closely with Justice Brandeis, who opposed bigness in both corporations and government, and who helped shut down the NRA in 1935.

From 1933 he sent many top law students to work in the New Deal. Among Frankfurter's protegés were Dean Acheson,[5] Benjamin V. Cohen, James M. Landis, Archibald MacLeish,[6] Thomas ("Tommy the Cork") Corcoran,[7] Lee Pressman[8] and Alger Hiss.[9]

Supreme Court

Frankfurter was a relatively conservative and highly patriotic Justice.

Frankfurter in 1940 wrote the Gobitas decision that allowed schools to expel students who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

He opposed applying the exclusionary rule to state court proceedings. In 1951 he joined in the decision upholding the Smith Act, which declared it unlawful to organize a party that taught or advocated violent overthrow of the government.

He opposed many of the rulings of the Warren Court on the grounds that the Court should practice judicial self-restraint not activism. Thus he dissented from the Baker v. Carr decision in 1962 outlawing rural districts smaller than urban ones, warning that the Court was entering a "political thicket." Liberals today treat Justice Frankfurter's record on the Court with some disdain.


  1. Felix Frankfurter, The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti: A Critical Analysis for Lawyers and Laymen (Buffalo: Wm. S. Hein & Co., 2003) ISBN 157588805X
  2. New evidence suggests that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty; cf. Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America (Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2005), ISBN 1904859275, p. 133
  3. Allen Weinstein, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978) ISBN 0394495462, p. 199
  4. "Nation: Felix Frankfurter" Time, September 7, 1962
  5. Robert L. Beisner, Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) ISBN 0195045785, p. 9
  6. Archibald MacLeish, "Felix Frankfurter: A Lesson of Faith," The Supreme Court Review, Vol. 1966, (1966), pp. 1-5
  7. "Nation: Felix Frankfurter" Time, September 7, 1962
  8. Peter H. Irons, The New Deal Lawyers (Princeton University Press, 1993) ISBN 0691000824, p. 124
  9. William Fitzgibbon, "The Hiss-Chambers Case: A Chronology Since 1934," The New York Times, June 12, 1949

Further reading

  • Online books and articles from Questia
  • Dawson, Nelson L. Louis D.Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter and the New Deal (1980)
  • Simon, James F. The Antagonists: Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter and Civil liberties in Modern America (1989)

Primary sources

  • Frankfurter, Felix. Diaries Of Felix Frankfurter ed. by Joseph P. Lash (1980)