Justice Robert H. Jackson: Groomed for the Supreme Court
January 10, 2024
Few nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court have been as well prepared—let us say, groomed—for a seat on the nation’s High Tribunal as Robert H. Jackson, who was appointed in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Jackson’s remarkable career in his run-up to joining the Court—brilliant New York attorney, intimate adviser to the nation’s most powerful leaders, history-making stints as Solicitor General and Attorney General, legal architect of an international deal at the outset of World War II that proved critical in saving England—richly deserved the fulsome praise he received from American legends. Justice Louis Brandeis, remarking on Solicitor General Jackson’s dazzling performance before the Court, said he “should be Solicitor General for life.”
Jackson’s meteoric rise in the legal world began in Frewsburg, New York, where he graduated from high school in 1909. He apprenticed to two local lawyers, and in 1911 he enrolled as a senior in the Albany Law School, which gave him credit for his experience in the law firms. He completed all the requirements for his degree, but the school could not confer it because he had not reached the age of 21. He was known throughout his career for beautiful writing skills, and observers attributed his literary flair to the fact that he spent just one year, rather than three, in law school.
Jackson was a dominating force in the courtroom and the western New York bar. One opponent called him “wickedly brilliant.” His clientele was diverse—a streetcar company, banks, striking labor union members and occasional defendants accused of murder. His practice reflected his philosophical commitment to individualism and his temperament. He had embraced Emerson’s emphasis on self-reliance and self-help, which he believed the basis of character and success. He did not want to be compromised. Accordingly, none of his clients contributed more than five percent of his income. He sought financial independence which, he believed, was an essential asset for public service because it would relieve him from the fear and pressure of losing an office.
The year 1911, the same year that he enrolled in law school, was a turning point in Jackson’s life. An active Democrat, he took a trip to Albany, New York, and while there met Franklin D. Roosevelt, then a freshman state senator in the legislature. They developed a close friendship that deepened over the years. Roosevelt brought Jackson into the New Deal and provided him with a range of governmental opportunities and experiences, including important roles in what was then the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Revenue (now the IRS) and the tax division of the Justice Department. FDR recognized Jackson’s broad talents, and soon he was tasked with speaking against the Supreme Court, corporations, and other opponents of the New Deal.
Jackson testified before the Senate on FDR’s difficulties with the Supreme Court, which had held a dozen New Deal programs unconstitutional and seemed to bear a personal animus toward Roosevelt shortly before FDR announced the Court-packing plan. Jackson became a well-known public figure and was viewed as an FDR favorite. He joined the president’s poker games and cruises to the Bahamas and fit neatly into insider discussions about Washington and national politics. Jackson’s relationship with Roosevelt might well have been the only one in which he practiced deference.
Indeed, Roosevelt was grooming Jackson as his successor in the White House in 1940. The first step was to become New York’s Governor in 1938, but the powerful politicians who controlled Albany balked at a Jackson candidacy. As an alternative, FDR appointed Jackson to the post of Solicitor General, where he earned high praise from the Justices.
In 1940, Roosevelt appointed Jackson to be Attorney General. In this position, Jackson spent much of his time working on war-related issues. Jackson provided critical legal and political advice to FDR, who was searching for a way to meet Winston Churchill’s urgent pleas for help in the face of Germany’s relentless attacks on England’s navy. Churchill needed ships. Jackson located an old statute that could be utilized to forge a “Destroyers for Bases Agreement,” one authorizing FDR to trade 50 aging destroyers in exchange for 99-year leases on eight British bases in the Western Hemisphere. The trade was hailed as a win-win. FDR was praised for strengthening the continental defenses while keeping the United States out of the war which, at the time, was a demand of the non-interventionist Congress.
Jackson’s stock was steadily rising, and he was well-positioned to run for the presidency. But Jackson, concerned about the immediate future of America and the likelihood that the nation would be drawn into war, thought it better for FDR to seek an unprecedented third term, which he won in an electoral landslide. In 1941, Roosevelt nominated Jackson to the Supreme Court. He easily won confirmation in the Senate. Jackson’s career on the Court, until his death in 1954, was marked by landmark opinions, an interruption to serve as Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, and confrontations with Justice Hugo Black, which led to the most famous feud between two Justices in the history of the Court. Interestingly, it began with an argument about when Justices should disqualify themselves from hearing a case. We turn next week to those matters.