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Abe Fortas

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Abe Fortas

Abraham Fortas (June 19, 1910 - April 5, 1982) was a U.S. Supreme Court associate justice. He served in that role from October 4, 1965 until May 14, 1969, when he resigned amidst a scandal.

Fortas was born in Memphis, Tennessee. He was the youngest of five children. His father, a native of England, was an Orthodox Jew who worked as a cabinetmaker. Abe Fortas acquired a life-long love for music from his father, who encouraged his playing the violin, known in Memphis as "Fiddlin' Abe Fortas". He attended public schools in Memphis, and graduated from Southwestern in 1930.

Fortas left Memphis to enroll in Yale Law School. He graduated second in his class in 1933 and was Editor in Chief of the Yale Law Journal. One of his professors, William O. Douglas, was impressed with Fortas and arranged for him to stay at Yale and become an assistant professor.

Shortly thereafter, Douglas left Yale to run the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, DC. Fortas commuted between New Haven and Washington both teaching at Yale and advising the SEC.

He served as general counsel of the Public Works Administration and as Undersecretary of the Interior during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. While he was working at the Department of the Interior, the Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, introduced him to a young congressman from Texas, Lyndon Johnson.

After leaving government service, Fortas started the firm Arnold, Fortas & Porter. It became one of Washington's most influential law firms.

In 1948, Lyndon Johnson ran for the Democratic nomination for one of Texas' seats in the US Senate. He won the primary by only 87 votes. His opponent convinced a federal judge to issue an order taking Johnson's name off of the general election ballot while the primary results were being contested; there were serious allegations of corruption in the voting process, including 200 Johnson votes that had been cast in alphabetical order. Johnson asked Fortas for help, and Fortas persuaded a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Hugo Black, to overturn the ruling. Johnson became a U.S. Senator, winning the general election.

In 1962, Fortas was asked to represent Clarence Earl Gideon's appeal before the Supreme Court. Gideon, a poor man from Florida, had been convicted of breaking into a pool hall. He could not afford a lawyer, and none was provided for him. Fortas and a team of attorneys from his firm spent months preparing the appellate brief, and won a unanimous decision from the Supreme Court for Gideon. This decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, solidified the constitutional right to have legal counsel.

In 1965, Lyndon Johnson, now President, persuaded Supreme Court Associate Justice Arthur Goldberg to resign his seat to become Ambassador to the United Nations. He then appointed his longtime friend, Abe Fortas, to the court. Fortas was initially reluctant to give up his substantial salary, but he eventually accepted.

When Chief Justice Earl Warren announced his retirement in June 1968, Johnson nominated Fortas to replace Warren as Chief Justice. However, Fortas' confirmation by the United States Senate was in trouble. He had accepted $15,000 for speaking engagements at the American University law school. While not illegal, it raised much criticism about the court's insulation from private interests. The nomination set off a four day filibuster led by Republicans and southern Democrats ("Dixiecrats"). A "cloture" motion to end the filibuster failed. At that time, 66 votes were needed to stop debate. The vote was 45-43, with 10 Republicans and 35 Democrats voting for cloture and 24 Republicans and 19 Democrats voting against cloture. The 12 other remaining Democrats were not present. Fortas then withdrew his name from consideration. The next president, Richard Nixon, a Republican, appointed Warren E. Burger as Chief Justice.

In 1969, a new scandal arose. Fortas had accepted a $20,000 fee from a foundation controlled by Louis Wolfson. Wolfson was a financier who was under investigation for violating Federal securities laws. He was later convicted and spent time in prison. Wolfson was also a friend and former client of Fortas. Under intense congressional scrutiny, including a threat of impeachment, Fortas resigned from the court. President Nixon appointed as his replacement Harry A. Blackmun, who later authored the controversial Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the U.S.

Fortas was the author of Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience.

In 1939, he married Carolyn E. Agger, a successful tax lawyer. They had no children.

In 2005 Abe Fortas again became a focus of controversy as the Republicans attempt to change Senate rules to eliminate filibusters of judicial appointments, a plan they originally called the "nuclear option." Democrats cite the Fortas filibuster as a precedent for their more recent filibusters. Republicans have tried to point out differences between their 1968 actions and what the Democrats have done and some even deny the Fortas filibuster ever happened.

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Preceded by:
Arthur Goldberg
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
October 4, 1965May 14, 1969
Succeeded by:
Harry Blackmun

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