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Profile: Abe Fortas

Abe Fortas was a participant or observer in the following events:

Abe Fortas.Abe Fortas. [Source: US Senate]Abe Fortas resigns from the Supreme Court under pressure. Fortas, a liberal Democrat and political crony of outgoing president Lyndon Johnson, was originally chosen by Johnson to replace retiring Chief Justice Earl Warren, but conservatives in the Senate blocked Fortas’s confirmation (see June 23, 1969). President Nixon intended to fill the Court with as many of his choices as possible, and he, along with conservative Republicans and Democrats who do not agree with Fortas’s liberal stance on civil rights, targeted Fortas for a smear campaign designed to force him off the bench. Nixon used what White House counsel John Dean will later call “an ugly bluff” against Fortas: He has Attorney General John Mitchell inform Fortas that he intends to open a special probe into Fortas’s dealings—while on the bench—with a financier already under investigation. Mitchell insinuates that he will put Fortas’s wife, herself an attorney and partner at Fortas’s former law firm, and other former partners of Fortas’s on the witness stand. Whether Fortas actually had any direct illegal dealings with this financier is unclear—certainly his dealings had such an appearance—but the bluff worked; Fortas agreed to retire early, thus clearing a position on the Court for Nixon to fill. Nixon will find it difficult to replace Fortas with one of the Southern conservatives he wants on the Court; Senate Democrats will lead successful efforts to block the nomination of two of Nixon’s nominees, the respected, moderately conservative Clement Haynsworth, and the virulently racist G. Harrold Carswell, himself recommended by Mitchell’s assistant, William Rehnquist. (Carswell’s failed nomination will produce a memorable statement from Senator Roman Hruska (R-NE), who, in defense of Carswell, tells the Senate: “Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?”) Nixon will use the defeats to make political hay in the South by claiming that Senate Democrats do not want a Southerner on the bench. [Dean, 2007, pp. 127-129]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, US Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, Roman Hruska, Lyndon B. Johnson, John Mitchell, G. Harrold Carswell, John Dean, Clement Haynsworth, Earl Warren, Abe Fortas

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate

June 23, 1969: Burger Becomes Chief Justice

Warren Burger.Warren Burger. [Source: US Government]Former appellate judge Warren Burger begins his term as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Burger was named months before by newly elected president Richard Nixon after two earlier candidates, former Eisenhower attorney general Herbert Brownell and former GOP presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, turned down the job. Supreme Court Associate Justice Abe Fortas was to be Chief Justice as one of then-president Lyndon Johnson’s last acts, but Senate Republicans, supported by conservative Senate Democrats who oppose Fortas’s civil rights rulings, successfully filibustered Fortas’s nomination and actually forced Fortas’s premature resignation (see May 14, 1969). The blocking of Fortas has an additional element: in June 1968, Chief Justice Earl Warren announced that he would step down, giving Johnson ample time to place Fortas in the position. However, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon wanted to name the Chief Justice himself, if he won the national election. To that end, Nixon sent word to Congressional Republicans to block Johnson’s naming of a replacement for Warren. Senate Republicans launched the filibuster after being given information that intimated Fortas had received an inordinately large honorarium for teaching a course at American University, a sum said to have been raised by one of his former law partners. [Dean, 2007, pp. 127-128]

Entity Tags: Herbert Brownell, Earl Warren, Thomas Dewey, Warren Burger, Abe Fortas, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Former Nixon White House counsel Leonard Garment, now working for President Ford, meets with former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas to further his case for pardoning Richard Nixon. Garment has already spoken to a number of journalists who believe the time has come for a pardon. Garment asks Fortas if Nixon should be pardoned; Fortas says he should. This, Fortas says, is “Ecclesiastes time,” a time to cast away stones and to heal. A public prosecution of Nixon would be a “horror,” Fortas muses. Garment phones Ford’s chief of staff Alexander Haig, who is pushing the case for a pardon from within the White House, and Haig gives Garment permission to meet with Ford and make his case. [Werth, 2006, pp. 206-207]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Leonard Garment, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, Abe Fortas

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

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