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The US Supreme Court: Abe Fortas



Hank Greely explains the fate of Abe Fortas: "Fortas had been one of the key lawyers who preserved "Landslide Lyndon's" 87 vote victory in his 1948 race for the US Senate. Johnson used him as a trusted adviser thereafter, successfully nominating for a seat as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 1965. In June 1968 LBJ nominated the very liberal Fortas for promotion from Associate Justice to Chief Justice, to replace Earl Warren, who had announced that he was retiring effective on the confirmation of his successor. Republican Senators and Southern conservative Democratic Senators stalled the nomination, hoping (correctly, as it turned out) that a Republican would be elected and would nominate a conservative successor to Warren. A vote to break a four-day filibuster failed on October 2 and Fortas asked that his name be withdrawn. Johnson's nomination of Fortas was not helped by the fact that LBJ nominated a Texas crony, Homer Thorneberry, a non-spectacular lower court federal judge, to take Fortas's Associate Justice seat.

After the nomination fight was over, it became public knowledge, through a story in Life magazine that, in 1966, shortly after becoming a Supreme Court associate justice, Fortas had received money for giving legal advice to a friend, former client, financier, and convicted felon named Louis Wolfson. The money came, as I recall, from both Wolfson and his family foundation and was to amount to $20,000 a year, for the rest of Fortas's life (and the life of his wife if she survived him). Fortas had initially been somewhat reluctant to accept the Supreme Court seat because of the great drop in income he would experience from his private law firm salary; the Wolfson money may have helped convince him. Wolfson had been convicted of securities fraud, although he was not involved in any litigation that reached the Supreme Court during Fortas's tenure.

Fortas had returned Wolfson's first $20,000 by December 1966, but the initial acceptance came back to haunt him. John Dean (yes, the John Dean of Watergate fame), in a book about Nixon's nomination of William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court, argues that the Nixon administration leaked that information to Life and then used it to pressure Fortas to resign. Whatever the Nixon Administration's role, Fortas, his reputation battered, resigned from the Court in May 1969.

Fortas had also continued, during his time as an Associate Justice, to give LBJ political advice on a wide range of matters, including Vietnam This was viewed as inappropriate for a sitting Supreme Court justice. So, I wouldn't say that Fortas resigned in disgust, and it probably isn't fair to say that he resigned in disgrace, but he did resign under a cloud".

Ronald Hilton - 9/10/02


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