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Profile: Felix Frankfurter

Felix Frankfurter was a participant or observer in the following events:

Chief Justice Fred Vinson.Chief Justice Fred Vinson. [Source: Kansas State Historical Society]The US Supreme Court upholds the power of the federal government’s executive branch to withhold documents from a civil suit on the basis of executive privilege and national security (see October 25, 1952). The case, US v Reynolds, overturns an appellate court decision that found against the government (see December 11, 1951). Originally split 5-4 on the decision, the Court goes to 6-3 when Justice William O. Douglas joins the majority. The three dissenters, Justices Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, and Robert Jackson, refuse to write a dissenting opinion, instead adopting the decision of the appellate court as their dissent.
'State Secrets' a Valid Reason for Keeping Documents out of Judicial, Public Eye - Chief Justice Fred Vinson writes the majority opinion. Vinson refuses to grant the executive branch the near-unlimited power to withhold documents from judicial review, as the government’s arguments before the court implied (see October 21, 1952), but instead finds what he calls a “narrower ground for defense” in the Tort Claims Act, which compels the production of documents before a court only if they are designated “not privileged.” The government’s claim of privilege in the Reynolds case was valid, Vinson writes. But the ruling goes farther; Vinson upholds the claim of “state secrets” as a reason for withholding documents from judicial review or public scrutiny. In 2008, author Barry Siegel will write: “In truth, only now was the Supreme Court formally recognizing the privilege, giving the government the precedent it sought, a precedent binding on all courts throughout the nation. Most important, the Court was also—for the first time—spelling out how the privilege should be applied.” Siegel will call the Reynolds ruling “an effort to weigh competing legitimate interests,” but the ruling does not allow judges to see the documents in order to make a decision about their applicability in a court case: “By instructing judges not to insist upon examining documents if the government can satisfy that ‘a reasonable danger’ to national security exists, Vinson was asking jurists to fly blind.” Siegel will mark the decision as “an act of faith. We must believe the government,” he will write, “when it claims [the accident] would reveal state secrets. We must trust that the government is telling the truth.”
Time of Heightened Tensions Drives Need for Secrecy - Vinson goes on to note, “[W]e cannot escape judicial notice that this is a time of vigorous preparation for the national defense.” Locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and fighting a war in Korea, the US is, Vinson writes, in a time of crisis, and one where military secrets must be kept and even encouraged. (U. S. v. Reynolds 3/9/1953; Siegel 2008, pp. 171-176)
Future Ramifications - Reflecting on the decision in 2008, Siegel will write that while the case will not become as well known as many other Court decisions, it will wield significant influence. The ruling “formally recognized and established the framework for the government’s ‘state secrets’ privilege—a privilege that for decades had enabled federal agencies to conceal conduct, withhold documents, and block civil litigation, all in the name of national secrecy.… By encouraging judicial deference when the government claimed national security secrets, Reynolds had empowered the Executive Branch in myriad ways. Among other things, it had provided a fundamental legal argument for much of the Bush administration’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Enemy combatants such as Yaser Esam Hamdi (see December 2001) and Jose Padilla (see June 10, 2002), for many months confined without access to lawyers, had felt the breath of Reynolds. So had the accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui when federal prosecutors defied a court order allowing him access to other accused terrorists (see March 22, 2005). So had the Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar (see September 26, 2002), like dozens of others the subject of a CIA extraordinary rendition to a secret foreign prison (see After September 11, 2001). So had hundreds of detainees at the US Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay, held without charges or judicial review (see September 27, 2001). So had millions of American citizens, when President Bush, without judicial knowledge or approval, authorized domestic eavesdropping by the National Security Agency (see Early 2002). US v. Reynolds made all this possible. The bedrock of national security law, it had provided a way for the Executive Branch to formalize an unprecedented power and immunity, to pull a veil of secrecy over its actions.” (Siegel 2008, pp. ix-x)

One of the first schools to implement desegregation is Barnard Elementary in Washington, DC. This photo shows black and white children in the same classroom.One of the first schools to implement desegregation is Barnard Elementary in Washington, DC. This photo shows black and white children in the same classroom. [Source: Library of Congress]The landmark US Supreme Court case Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, rules that racial segregation in public schools violates the Fourteenth Amendment. The unanimous decision overturns the doctrine of “separate but equal” education codified in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling (see 1896). The case was argued by the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the legal arm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organizations filed the suit as a challenge to the “separate but equal” doctrine, and combined five separate cases under the one Brown v. Board of Education rubric. The Supreme Court heard arguments on the case three different times in three years. In a unanimous decision, the Court finds that the “separate but equal” doctrine violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, and orders desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” Chief Justice Earl Warren wants to send a powerful signal to the nation in the ruling, and works to craft a unanimous decision with no dissents or even concurrences. He writes the Court’s opinion himself, but seeks the input of the other justices in two draft opinions that he tailors into his final opinion. One of the compromises he is forced to make is to put off the question of actually implementing desegregation until a later time, inadvertently allowing many states to keep segregationist practices in place for decades. Warren says the opinion should be “short, readable by the lay public, non-rhetorical, unemotional, and, above all, non-accusatory.” Justice William O. Douglas is delighted by Warren’s opinion, and in a note to Warren, writes: “I do not think I would change a single word in the memoranda you gave me this morning. The two draft opinions meet my idea exactly. You have done a beautiful job.” Justice Harold H. Burton writes a memo to Warren reading in part: “Today I believe has been a great day for America and the Court.… I cherish the privilege of sharing in this.… To you goes the credit for the character of the opinions which produced the all important unanimity. Congratulations.” In an internal memo, Justice Felix Frankfurter writes of the practice of segregation: “That it is such has been candidly acknowledged by numerous accounts & adjudications in those states where segregation is enforced. Only self conscious superiority or inability to slip into the other fellow’s skin can fail to appreciate that.” Frankfurter says the ruling makes for “a day of glory.” Some right-wing and segregationist organizations condemn the ruling; Warren is forwarded a letter from an official of the Sons of the American Revolution claiming the ruling is attributable to “the worldwide Communist conspiracy” and that the NAACP is financed by “a Communist front.” President Eisenhower will take strong action to reduce segregation in America, but refuses to endorse the Court’s ruling. In 1967, one of the NAACP’s lead attorneys in the case, Thurgood Marshall, will go on to serve on the Supreme Court. (Library of Congress 1994; American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

In the case of United States v. Auto Workers, the Supreme Court reverses a lower court’s dismissal of an indictment against a labor union accused of violating federal laws prohibiting corporations and labor unions from making contributions or expenditures in federal elections (see June 23, 1947). Justice Felix Frankfurter writes the majority opinion; Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justices William O. Douglas and Hugo Black dissent. In a 5-3 decision, the Court finds the International Union United Automobile, Aircraft, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America liable for its practice of using union dues to sponsor television commercials relating to the 1954 Congressional elections. (UNITED STATES v. AUTO. WORKERS 2011; Moneyocracy 2/2012) Law professor Allison R. Hayward will later write that in her opinion the Court finding created “a fable of campaign finance reform… dictated by political opportunism. Politicians used reform to exploit public sentiment and reduce rivals’ access to financial resources.… [J]udges should closely examine campaign finance regulation and look for the improper use of legislation for political gain instead of simply deferring to Congress. Undue deference to the Auto Workers fable of reform could lead to punishment for the exercise of political rights. Correcting the history is thus essential to restoring proper checks on campaign finance legislation.” Hayward will argue that Frankfurter used a timeline of Congressional efforts to curb and reform campaign finance practices as an excuse to allow powerful political interests to exert restrictions on political opponents with less access to large election finance contributions. The case is used uncritically, and sometimes unfairly, to influence later campaign reform efforts, Hayward will argue. (Hayward 6/17/2008 pdf file)

Al Gore speaks to the Liberty Coalition and the American Constitution Society.Al Gore speaks to the Liberty Coalition and the American Constitution Society. [Source: American Constitution Society]Former Vice President Al Gore delivers a long, impassioned speech on civil liberties and constitutional issues to the Liberty Coalition and the American Constitution Society. Gore joins former Representative Bob Barr (R-GA) in speaking out against the Bush administration’s infringement on American civil liberties. Gore and Barr have what Gore calls a “shared concern that America’s Constitution is in grave danger.”
Patently Illegal Domestic Surveillance - Gore’s speech is sparked by recent revelations that the NSA has been spying on American citizens for years (see December 15, 2005), and in response, the administration “has brazenly declared that it has the unilateral right to continue without regard to the established law enacted by Congress precisely to prevent such abuses.” As the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA) is perfectly sufficient, there was no need for the Bush administration to circumvent that law. “At present, we still have much to learn about the NSA’s domestic surveillance,” Gore says. “What we do know about this pervasive wiretapping virtually compels the conclusion that the president of the United States has been breaking the law, repeatedly and insistently. A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government.” Gore says he agrees with Bush on the threat of terrorism, but disagrees that the US has to “break the law or sacrifice our system of government” to protect itself, as this will make it “weaker and more vulnerable.” In addition, he says, “once violated, the rule of law is itself in danger,” and, “Unless stopped, lawlessness grows, the greater the power of the executive grows, the more difficult it becomes for the other branches to perform their constitutional roles.” It is patently obvious that the Bush administration has broken the law in conducting and approving its warrantless wiretaps, Gore says, regardless of what arguments and defenses administration officials may put forth (see September 12-18, 2001 and Early 2002). So, Gore says, “When President Bush failed to convince Congress to give him the power he wanted when this measure was passed, he secretly assumed that power anyway, as if Congressional authorization was a useless bother. But as [Supreme Court] Justice [Felix] Frankfurter once wrote, ‘To find authority so explicitly withheld is not merely to disregard in a particular instance the clear will of Congress. It is to disrespect the whole legislative process and the constitutional division of authority between the president and the Congress.‘… And the disrespect embodied in these apparent mass violations of the law is part of a larger pattern of seeming indifference to the Constitution that is deeply troubling to millions of Americans in both political parties.”
Illegal Seizure of American Citizens - Gore notes that Bush has declared that he has “a heretofore unrecognized inherent power to seize and imprison any American citizen that he alone determines to be a threat to our nation, and that notwithstanding his American citizenship that person in prison has no right to talk with a lawyer, even if he wants to argue that the president or his appointees have made a mistake and imprisoned the wrong person” (see November 13, 2001 and March 5, 2002). He says: “The president claims that he can imprison that American citizen—any American citizen he chooses—indefinitely, for the rest of his life, without even an arrest warrant, without notifying them of what charges have been filed against them, without even informing their families that they have been imprisoned.” Gore then says: “No such right exists in the America that you and I know and love. It is foreign to our Constitution. It must be rejected.”
Specious Authority to Torture - Neither does the executive branch have the right to authorize torture, Gore says. After citing horrific examples from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, he calls it “a shameful exercise of power that overturns a set of principles that you’re nation has observed since General George Washington first enunciated them during our Revolutionary War. They have been observed by every president since then until now. They violate the Geneva Conventions, the International Convention Against Torture, and our own laws against torture.”
Unlawful Kidnapping of Foreign Citizens - The president has no right to have foreign citizens kidnapped from their homes and brought to the US for interrogation and imprisonment, or worse, delivered to other nations for harsh interrogations and torture, says Gore. The closest allies of the US have been shocked by such claims.
No Restraint in the Constitution? - Gore asks whether the president really has such powers under the Constitution and, if so, “are there any acts that can on their face be prohibited?” He quotes the dean of Yale’s law school, Harold Koh, who said, “If the president has commander in chief power to commit torture, he has the power to commit genocide, to sanction slavery, to promote apartheid, to license summary execution.” Gore is “deeply troubl[ed]” that “our normal American safeguards have thus far failed to contain this unprecedented expansion of executive power.” He cites the numerous usage of “signing statements” by Bush that signal his intent “not to comply” with particular legislation (see December 30, 2005). When the Supreme Court struck down Bush’s indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” (see June 28, 2004), “the president then engaged in legal maneuvers designed to prevent the court from providing any meaningful content to the rights of the citizens affected.”
Historical Cycles - Since the founding of America, Gore says, the country has abrogated its citizens’ rights in one circumstance or another, and cites numerous examples. But those abrogations were always rectified to some degree in a repeated cycle of what he calls “excess and regret.” Gore is worried that the country may not be in such a cycle now. Instead, he says, the US may be on a path to permanent, state-sanctioned authoritarianism, with the constitutional safeguards American citizens have come to expect eroded and undermined to the point of irretrievability. Gore specifically cites the administration’s support for the so-called “unitary executive” theory of government, which he says “ought to be more accurately described as the unilateral executive.” That theory “threatens to expand the president’s powers until the contours of the Constitution that the framers actually gave us become obliterated beyond all recognition.”
Stark Authoritarianism - Why are Bush and his top officials doing this? Gore says that “[t]he common denominator seems to be based on an instinct to intimidate and control. The same pattern has characterized the effort to silence dissenting views within the executive branch, to censor information that may be inconsistent with its stated ideological goals, and to demand conformity from all executive branch employees.” Gore continues: “Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time. The only check on it is that, sooner or later, a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield. Two thousand two hundred American soldiers have lost their lives as this false belief bumped into a solid reality.”
Gutting Congress - Though serious damage has been done to the judicial branch, Gore acknowledges, “the most serious damage in our constitutional framework has been to the legislative branch. The sharp decline of Congressional power and autonomy in recent years has been almost as shocking as the efforts by the executive to attain this massive expansion of its power.… [T]he legislative branch of government as a whole, under its current leadership, now operates as if it were entirely subservient to the executive branch.… [T]he whole process is largely controlled by the incumbent president and his political organization” (see February 1, 2004). Gore says each member of Congress, Republican and Democrat, must “uphold your oath of office and defend the Constitution. Stop going along to get along. Start acting like the independent and co-equal branch of American government that you are supposed to be under the Constitution of our country.”
We the People - The American people still, for the moment, have the power to enforce the Constitution, Gore says, quoting former President Dwight Eisenhower, who said, “Any who act as if freedom’s defenses are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America.” Gore continues: “Fear drives out reason. Fear suppresses the politics of discourse and opens the door to the politics of destruction.… The founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed in their endeavors, they would have been hung as traitors. The very existence of our country was at risk. Yet in the teeth of those dangers, they insisted on establishing the full Bill of Rights. Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol? Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with tens of thousands of nuclear missiles ready to be launched on a moment’s notice to completely annihilate the country?” (Congressional Quarterly 1/16/2006; American Constitutional Society 1/16/2006)


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