Felix Frankfurter: The Influential Jurist

Article excerpt

Felix Frankfurter is often identified as one of the most influential American jurists (that is, legal scholars) of the twentieth century. And yet, his other activities--as a writer, an activist, a mentor of law students and an advisor to private organizations and politicians--arguably had a greater impact on the nation than his activities as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

When his family emigrated from Austria in 1894, Frankfurter knew only German, Hebrew and Yiddish. As he began anew with the English language at the age of twelve at Public School 25 on the Lower East side of New York City, he tended to think of the study of language and of law as intertwined.

Even some of his late legal decisions reassert this connection between the practice of law and the study of language. "All our work," he wrote about the dialogue between lawyers and judges in 1964, "our whole life is a matter of semantics, because words are the tools with which we work, the material out of which laws are made, out of which the Constitution was written. Everything depends on our understanding of them."

It unsurprising that such a sentiment was expressed by someone for whom English was a fourth language. His written legal opinions have considerable interest from a literary perspective.

Frankfurter's early activities as a writer and activist resemble the activities of reform-minded writers and activists sometimes termed progressives or "muckrakers." Whereas progressives were often participants in political reforms and were usually lawyers and politicians, muckrakers tended to operate outside official circles and attempted to influence public opinion through journalism, fiction, and activism. Frankfurter, essentially, did both.

The highlights of Frankfurter's legal career include three notable roles: a civil servant shortly after he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1906; an innovative teacher and influential mentor of students at Harvard Law School between 1914 and 1939; and a Supreme Court Justice between 1939 and 1962. Frankfurter was the third individual of Jewish ancestry to be appointed to the Supreme Court. His close friend and mentor (and, some biographers add, father figure), Louis D. Brandeis, was the second. Before President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Frankfurter to the Supreme Court when Brandeis retired in 1939, Frankfurter had served as an unofficial advisor to Roosevelt.

Brandeis was one of three very different mentors Frankfurter met during and after his time at Harvard. Brandeis and Frankfurter shared a devotion to defending the civil rights of all Americans, particularly the immigrants and racial minorities who often received poor legal protection. Both were also active in the post-World War I movement to establish a Jewish homeland, a movement then known as Zionism.

Frankfurter's early work as a civil servant brought him into direct contact with many of the issues in which progressives and muckrakers were interested. The Sacco-Vanzetti case is probably the best-known example. In that case, two immigrants with minimal English skills and radical political affiliations were convicted of robbery and murder with questionable evidence. Frankfurter and others labored unsuccessfully to secure a new trial for those two defendants, who were executed in 1927. His book about the trial, "The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti: A Critical Analysis for Lawyers and Laymen" (1927), remains influential.

In 1920, he was a key participant in the establishment of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU was largely founded in response to the so-called Red Scare of 1917-1920, during which fear of communists and political radicals led to the widespread arrest of immigrants and others suspected of subversive activities. Frankfurter was also associated with similar organizations, including the Jewish American Congress, the National Association of Colored People (NAACP), and the National Consumers League. …