- FORTAS, ABE
- FORTAS, ABE (1910–1982), U.S. lawyer and Supreme Court justice. Fortas was born in Memphis, Tennessee, son of a cabinetmaker. A brilliant student, he graduated from Southwestern College (1930) and Yale Law School (1933), where he was Law Journal editor. Upon graduation, he was appointed to the Yale law faculty. Fortas married Carolyn Agger, who also became a distinguished lawyer. In 1937 he entered full-time government service with the Securities Exchange Commission and was general counsel for the Public Works Administration. From 1942 to 1946 he served as undersecretary of the interiorand also was an adviser in 1945 to the American delegation at the San Francisco Conference which founded the United Nations. During this period Fortas became friendly with Lyndon B. Johnson, the future president. In 1946 Fortas entered private legal practice. His firm, Arnold, Fortas & Porter, became one of the most prominent and wealthy in Washington, representing many important corporations. As counsel for Lyndon Johnson, Fortas successfully countered the challenge to the validity of Johnson's election to the U.S. Senate in 1948. In the 1950s Fortas and his firm became involved in civil liberties cases. He successfully defended Owen Lattimore, a victim of the McCarthy era communist charges. Some of his criminal cases became legal landmarks. In the Durham case, he persuaded the Federal District Court to adopt a new standard for criminal insanity, determining that an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was a product of mental disease or defect. In yet another, Fortas successfully argued that states should be required to provide free legal counsel for indigent defendants charged with major crimes. When President Johnson assumed office in 1963, Fortas became a key presidential aide and adviser. He worked out a complicated trust agreement for the Johnson family, handled two sensitive administration scandals, aided the president in the Dominican crisis, and advised him on issues ranging from racial problems to the Vietnam War. In July 1965 Johnson appointed Fortas to the Supreme Court. As an associate justice, Fortas was known for his penetrating mind, skillful legal writing, and concern for individual rights. He generally joined the Court's libertarian, activist majority. One of the most significant of his opinions was in the Galt case, which extended the constitutional rights to due process of law to juveniles being tried in special juvenile courts. Fortas firmly believed in the protection of personal privacy, and opposed the widespread use of civil disobedience to attain political ends. His pamphlet Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience (1968) presented a rational yet passionate plea for the rejection of political violence and for respect for law and the democratic process. In the summer of 1968 Johnson nominated Fortas to succeed retiring Chief Justice Warren. Opponents of the nomination succeeded in blocking Fortas' confirmation; they charged that he was too liberal and too close an adviser to President Johnson, and that the new appointment should be deferred until after the approaching presidential election. Moreover, while on the Court Fortas had accepted a fee for serving as lifetime consultant to the charitable Wolfson Family Foundation. When its founder, Louis E. Wolfson, was indicted for stock manipulation, Fortas returned the fee and severed his connection with the Foundation; but the disclosure of the association now aroused bitter public controversy. Fortas maintained that he had done no wrong; nevertheless, in May 1969 he resigned from the Court under heavy pressure and returned to private practice. -BIBLIOGRAPHY: Rodell, in: New York Times Magazine (July 28, 1968), 12–13, 63–68; Graham, ibid. (June 4, 1967), 26, 86–96; United States 90th Congress, 2nd Session, Senate; Executive Report No. 8 (1968); 89th Congress, 1st Session, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Hearings (Aug. 5, 1965). (Barton G. Lee)
Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.