Felix Frankfurter (November 15, 1882 – February 22, 1965) was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1939 by his friend, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Prior to his appointment, he was an adviser to President Roosevelt. Frankfurter served as an Associate Justice for 23 years, from January 20, 1939, to August 28, 1962. He retired after suffering a stroke.
Felix Frankfurter was born to Leopold and Emma (Winter) Frankfurter in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, on November 15, 1882. He was the third of six children and was of Jewish heritage with many of his ancestors having been rabbis. His father was a merchant, and he had an uncle, Solomon Frankfurter, who was the head librarian at the Vienna University Library. His family immigrated to the immigrant-populated Lower East Side of New York when he was 12 in 1894. Attending Public School 25, he was an excellent student where he participated in chess while shooting craps on the street. In his free time, he attended political lectures about trade unions, socialism, and communism. He also spent a great deal of time reading at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.
Felix Frankfurter attended the City College of New York, where he graduated third in his class and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After graduating in 1902, he was employed at the Tenement House Department of New York City to pay his tuition to Harvard Law School. At Harvard, he was editor of the Harvard Law Review and became friends with philosopher Horace Kallen, and with Walter Lippmann, writer, reporter, and political commentator.
After graduating first in his class from Harvard in 1906, Frankfurter was first employed by Hornblower, Byrne, Miller & Potter, a New York law firm and then became assistant to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Henry Stimson. At this time, he was influenced by I. D. Herbert Croly’s book, The Promise of American Life, and started supporting Theodore Roosevelt and his New Nationalism. In 1911, Henry Stimson was appointed Secretary of War by President William Howard Taft, and Felix was named as law officer of the Bureau of Insular Affairs by Stimson. Working directly for Stimson, Frankfurter became Stimson’s assistant and confident. In this position, Frankfurter could not publicly state his Progressive leanings. In 1912, he supported the reelection of Theodore Roosevelt. When Woodrow Wilson beat Roosevelt, Frankfurter became unhappy with both political parties and said that he was “politically homeless.”
After the election, Frankfurter went back to Harvard to teach administrative and criminal law. At this time, he and fellow professor, James M. Landis, started advocating for judicial restraint. This is a message that he continued as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. He wanted government administrative agencies to be freer from judicial oversight and judicial restraint when ruling on government violations. Also serving as counsel for the National Consumers League, he supported a minimum wage and reduced work hours. In addition, he helped the development of The New Republic magazine after it was founded by Herbert Croly.
During World War I, Frankfurter became embroiled in controversy. In 1917, he became special assistant to the Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, as Judge Advocate General. He supervised military courts-martial for the War Department. Although he was not called to active duty, he was commissioned as a major in the Officers Reserve Corps. Then, in September, he became counsel to the President’s Mediation Committee and was charged with resolving strikes threatening war production. After investigating a 1916 Preparedness Day Bombing in San Francisco, he argued that the defendant was framed and should have a new trial. After investigating numerous labor issues, including a copper industry strike in Arizona where 1,000 were deported to New Mexico, he developed an empathy for workers and argued that unresolved labor issues could lead to radicalism, gaining him a reputation as a radical.
After the war, he supported the formation of the League of Free Nations Association and the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. However, he was a non-practicing Jew, who felt that religion was “an accident of birth.” He even went against his mother’s wishes in 1919 by marrying Marion Denman, the daughter of Congregational minister.
Felix Frankfurter continued to support what many considered radical causes including recognition for the newly formed Soviet Union. In 1920, he helped found the American Civil Liberties Union in reaction to raids and arrests in Massachusetts of alleged communist radicals. Frankfurter, along with other attorneys, pointed out the violations of the rights of the defendants that lead to the release of the defendants and put an end to the raids. He was given a chair at Harvard Law School, but he continued to support socialists, religious minorities, and the oppressed. His support for a new trial in the controversial Sacco and Vanzetti case added to his public disfavor. Despite the public perception of Frankfurter, he continued to teach at Harvard and was an unofficial advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He also recommended several people for positions within the Roosevelt administration. One of those people was Alger Hiss, who was accused of being a Russian spy in 1948. Because of this accusation, Hiss testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was later convicted of perjury based on his testimony.
In 1939, when FDR nominated Frankfurter for the Supreme Court, his nomination was opposed, as would be expected. In the hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, his nomination was opposed on the basis of his being an unofficial advisor to FDR, his connection with certain groups, and his birth outside the country. Due to this controversy, he became the first Supreme Court Justice nominee to appear before the Judiciary Committee in person. However, he was confirmed without a dissenting vote and became the only naturalized citizen to serve on the Supreme Court.
During his time on the Supreme Court, he wrote 132 concurring opinions and 251 dissenting opinions. His belief in judicial restraint led him to believe that the courts should not set limits on the other two branches of the government, and that federal court should not interfere in the rights of states by ruling on issues decided by state courts. He adhered to these principles in 1940 in a case involving the refusal of Jehovah’s Witnesses students to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. He argued that the First Amendment rights of freedom of religion did not supersede policies set by local school boards and that allowing these students to be exempt from these ceremonies might cause other children to be less loyal to the country. However, three years later in 1943, the Supreme Court reversed their opinion, stating that no government entity had the right to set official dogma and require citizens to participate in that dogma. The change may have been influenced by Hitler’s policies in Germany over those three years. Frankfurter’s dissent of the new court position rejected the idea that his Jewish heritage should make him a protector of minorities. He stated that the court should not be deciding on the right and wrong of a law but should be deciding whether governing bodies had the right to enact a specific law. He continued throughout his time in the Supreme Court to argue the Court’s authority to rule on certain issues because it overstepped the authority that belonged to states or the other branches of the federal government, which put him in opposition to many of the Justices on issues like desegregation. This unwillingness to rule on the right and wrong of specific issues because he felt that was outside the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction made him an unpopular Justice as judged by history.