The only naturalized American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965), immigrated from Austria to New York in 1894. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1906, and later joined the school’s faculty. Throughout the 1920s, Frankfurter was influential both as a law professor and as a participant in public debates. He became a trusted advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, resulting in his nomination to the Supreme Court in 1939. While Frankfurter argued in favor of the regulations established by the New Deal, his perceived unwillingness to protect minorities and monitor the fairness of the political process left him at odds with other justices.
Frankfurter, the only naturalized American to serve on the Supreme Court, arrived in New York in 1894 from Vienna, Austria. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1906 after compiling an exceptional record. Because he was Jewish, he received no offers from private law firms commensurate with his talents, so he accepted an offer to assist the young Henry L. Stimson, who had just become the U.S. attorney in New York. Stimson took Frankfurter to Washington with him in 1911 when he became secretary of war in the administration of William Howard Taft. Frankfurter remained in Washington until 1914, when he joined the faculty of Harvard Law School. He performed important government service during World War I and participated in the Versailles Conference afterward.
Throughout the 1920s, Frankfurter was influential both as a law professor and as an active participant in public debates of the day, most notably in the controversy surrounding the conviction and subsequent execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in Massachusetts. By 1933 Frankfurter had become a trusted adviser and confidant to the new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, although he rejected an invitation to become solicitor general of the United States. Frankfurter preferred to remain at Harvard, where he could identify bright young lawyers and encourage them to join New Deal agencies in Washington.
One of Frankfurter’s mentors was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who argued that courts should, with rare exceptions, defer to the decisions made by legislatures and the Congress. Frankfurter agreed. He was especially critical of the Court for striking down much New Deal legislation in 1935-1936.
Roosevelt named Frankfurter to the Supreme Court in 1939, to succeed Justice Benjamin Cardozo. Although some anti-Semitic opposition was voiced, his appointment was generally well received, especially by liberals who looked forward to Frankfurter’s becoming the intellectual leader of a ‘Roosevelt Court.’
Frankfurter and other Roosevelt-appointed justices agreed that the new regulatory state being established by the New Deal (and in many states by their legislatures) was constitutional. But they disagreed sharply over whether the Court should similarly acquiesce to the victimization of unpopular political minorities by majoritarian legislatures. Frankfurter wrote a controversial opinion in Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940), upholding Pennsylvania’s right to punish Jehovah’s Witness schoolchildren whose religious beliefs prevented their pledging allegiance to the American flag. (The Court reversed itself in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette , over his sharp dissent.) Thereafter, Frankfurter, though a major figure on the Court, was regularly challenged by Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, and others who thought the Court should play a more active role in protecting minorities and otherwise monitoring the fairness of the political process. Indeed, Frankfurter’s last important opinion was a dissent in Baker v. Carr (1962), objecting to the Court’s willingness to assess the fairness of legislative districting.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.