Dishonest Abe; How LBJ's Favorite Supreme Court Justice Became the Prototype of Washington's Valueless Lawyers

By Lichtman, Allan J. | The Washington Monthly, December 1990 | Go to article overview

Dishonest Abe; How LBJ's Favorite Supreme Court Justice Became the Prototype of Washington's Valueless Lawyers


Lichtman, Allan J., The Washington Monthly


Dishonest Abe

Imagine a man with great abilities and strong convictions, but few, if any, principles. He would lack the internal gyroscope to harmonize his disparate beliefs or guide his personal conduct. Ends would always sanction means, and contradictions could be rationalized or simply ignored.

This is the Abe Fortas that emerges from the pages of Laura Kalman's carefully researched and well-written biography of the public man. (*1) It is precisely this kind of man who would falsely believe that he could simultaneously serve the most powerful private interests and promote the public good.

The Fortas story provides an inside perspective on the transformation of American public life that followed World War II and proves that history can still teach by moral example. Unfortunately, the reader has to work too hard to find lessons that should be readily evident after 400 pages.

Kalman's book is notable for its through research, narrative depth, and intelligent commentary on Forta's personal style and philosophy (or lack thereof). But the big picture is often lost in the detail, a weakness that is made more glaring by the lack of a thematic introduction or a synthetic conclusion. Her book also follows by just two years another lengthy Fortas biography, Bruce Allen Murphy's Fortas: The Rise and Ruin of a Supreme Court Justice, that raverses much of the same territory. Both authors combed through vast archival material, but Kalman had privileged access to Fortas's personal papers. Her book contains new information and analysis, but no startling revelations or striking new interpretations.

The strength of Kalman's book is the depth in which she traces Fortas's odyssey from New Deal whiz kid to fallen Supreme Court justice, expertly revealing his different roles and personae. After a brilliant career at Yale Law School, Fortas quickly rose to the top of the New Deal bureaucracy, becoming undersecretary of Interior at age 31. After World War II he fluidly made the transition to power lawyer and LBJ confidant. But he is largely remembered as the first Supreme Court justice to resign under allegations of improper conduct.

Fortas, Kalman shows, was the preeminent moral relativist. For five years he loyally served Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. But just after leaving Interior he had "a convenient lapse of memory" when called upon by Congress to corroborate Ickes's charges taht President Truman's appointee for undersecretary of the Navy had sought to trade political contributions for the leasing of oil rights. Fortas helped Lyndon Johnson steal the senatorial election of 1948 and promoted voting rights for minorities. He advised President Johnson on domestic and foreign issues, drafted speeches, and even helped with legislation while serving on the Supreme Court.

Relativism likewise guided Forta's approach to the law, both as advocate and arbiter. As the managing partner of Arnold, Fortas, and Porter, he felt he could in good conscience represent polluters, chiselers, and cigarette companies, because everyone deserved representation, no matter their character or practices. Never mind that other former New Deal lawyers--Benjamin Cohen, Joseph Rauh, Clifford Durr--had chosen careers that did not focus on aiding the rich and powerful.

As a Supreme Court justice, Fortas tended to reach decisions based on his personal convictions then to search for justification in precedent and social science. His brilliant advocacy made him one of the most influential members of the Warren Court but also earned him the enmity of purists like Justice Hugo Black, who believed that a consistent judicial philosophy should guide decisions of the Court.

Much of the significance of the Fortas story lies in his transitional role in forging a new relationship between business and government and in the connections between his prior career and his downfall as a justice. …

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