Born on June 19, 1910, Abe Fortas began his life far from Washington D.C. The son of immigrant parents, he spent his childhood as many did in those days, with one exception: from his father he inherited a love of music. When he was still a child, he learned to play the violin and acquired the nickname Fiddlin’ Abe Fortas.
His parents were Jewish immigrants – his father was from England with Russian lineage and his mother was born in Russia — who ran a small store in Memphis. The youngest of five children, Abe displayed an aptitude for school early on. He graduated college at the top of his class and left Memphis in 1930 to pursue a law degree at Yale University.
While working on his degree at Yale, he discovered a passion for the Yale Law Journal and eventually climbed his way to the position of Editor in Chief. In 1933, he graduated second in his class and was soon thereafter offered a job. Having joined the faculty as assistant professor of law, he stayed at Yale Law School while landing another job at the newly formed United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
While he commuted between Yale and the SEC, which was located in Washington D.C., he courted and later married Carolyn Agger, who remained with him for the rest of his life. During his downtime, he continued to pursue his passion for music. He played violin in a quartet once a week. Around this time, he also developed a keen interest in Puerto Rico after befriending Governor Luis Muñoz Marín. His interest in the island inspired him to lobby Congress on behalf of Puerto Rico. He even helped draft the island’s constitution.
Not content with simply teaching, Fortas pursued his interests in law and got a job as general counsel for the Public Works Administration (PWA). Founded as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933, the PWA helped keep people employed during the Great Depression by financing and executing massive construction projects.
Shortly after joining the PWA, Fortas became counsel at the Department of the Interior. One year later, in 1942, he was promoted to Undersecretary of the Interior. Now a member of the United States government, he encountered and befriended many well-known politicians, including future president Lyndon B. Johnson, who would remain a lifelong friend.
While Fortas was still at the Department of Interior, the Second World War deepened as the Axis and Allies wrought destruction throughout Europe and Asia. He felt a higher calling and was granted leave from the department to join the military in 1945, the year the war would end.
He, however, would never see combat: only a few weeks after joining the army, he was discharged due to a severe illness, ocular tuberculosis. President Harry Truman appointed him as an adviser to the development of the United Nations after his military discharge. In that position, he helped guide the formation of the UN.
Fortas left the government a year later and started a private law firm. Over time, he would partner with several influential Washington staples, including Paul Porter, former director of the FCC. Their guidance and abilities established the law firm as one of the best in the capital. To this day, it remains important and influential in Washington D.C.
Two years after founding his law firm, Fortas’s relation to Lyndon Johnson deepened as LBJ ran for the U.S. Senate in Texas. Johnson’s democratic run created a controversy when he won the primaries by only a handful of votes. Lawsuits were filed and Johnson’s rival, Coke R. Stevenson, a former governor of Texas, filed an injunction to have Johnson’s name removed from the ballot. More lawsuits followed. Around this time, Johnson enlisted Fortas’s help.
Fortas, by this time well-acquainted with the inner workings of Washington, persuaded a United States Supreme Court Justice to vote to overrule the injunction, thus allowing Johnson’s name on the ticket. As a result, Johnson won the election and became U.S. Senator, setting the course for his eventual rise to Vice President, then President of the United States of America.
During the dark years of McCarthyism, when Senator Joseph McCarthy headed the House of Un-American Activities Committee, Fortas came to the defense of several people. McCarthy had made it his personal mission to root out communism in the United States. He went to extraordinary lengths, including calling witnesses, sometimes famous people, before the committee and convincing them to either admit to harboring communist sympathies – or even calling out friends and colleagues who may have harbored sympathies for communism.
Few people stood up to McCarthy. Fortas was one of them. He gained national fame as a defender of several people caught in the sights of Senator McCarthy. He leveraged this fame to promote his law firm, and in his downtime, he even continued to play the violin.
He remained close with LBJ and advised him after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Although he was initially critical of committees adjoined to investigate the assassination, Fortas played a crucial part in the development of the Warren Commission. Headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the commission authored the definitive – and still controversial – report on the Kennedy assassination.
Having won Johnson’s trust and support, Fortas found himself positioned to join the United States Supreme Court. Johnson was so fond of Fortas, in fact, that he persuaded then-court justice Arthur Goldberg to resign from the court to become the U.S.’s ambassador to the United Nations. As soon as Goldberg left his post, Johnson appointed Fortas to the Supreme Court. The Senate approved the appointment, and Fortas’s place in history was firmly established.
No stranger to controversy, Johnson spent his political capital on the passage of several controversial pieces of legislation, including the Civil Rights Act and the formation of Medicare. These laws were hugely unpopular, immediately facing legal opposition. By elevating Fortas to the Supreme Court, Johnson positioned himself to have an ardent ally on the court.
During his time on the court, Fortas championed children’s rights, students’ rights, and civil rights. He famously supported the plaintiffs in Miranda v. Arizona, which established the precedent requiring police officers to read citizens their Miranda rights before the arrest.
Fortas courted his fair share of controversy, too. Like many officials in Washington, he gave paid speeches for private firms and organizations. These speeches would prove damning in 1965. When Earl Warren retired from his position as Chief Justice, Johnson appointed Fortas. Many politicians, however, were wary of Fortas. Citing his paid speeches, members of Congress argued that Fortas as Chief Justice couldn’t uphold partiality if any of these organizations appeared before the court.
When the Senate essentially filibustered his hearings, Fortas withdrew his name from consideration and remained an associate justice of the Supreme Court. His private dealings continued to hound him. When the foundation of Wall Street titan Louis Wolfson hired Fortas to offer counsel for the foundation, they paid him a $20,000 retainer, the first of what was supposed to be many payments.
This agreement and payment were kept quiet until the media got hold of it. In a series of devastating exposes, the Washington Post published phone transcripts in which Fortas told Wolfson that he would persuade Johnson to pardon his client. Wolfson was alleged to have engaged in securities fraud and eventually wound up in prison.
Fortas’s association with Wolfson and the questionable nature of their business relationship turned the public against him. Under pressure and with few friends left in Washington, Fortas resigned from the Supreme Court in 1969.
He returned to law practice in disgrace. The partners at Arnold, Fortas & Porter, the influential law firm he’d founded, pushed him out. He was forced to strike out on his own and he founded a new law firm, Fortas, and Koven, where he practiced until his death in 1982. He and Johnson never lost touch and remained great friends until the end. Johnson even counted himself as a client of Fortas & Porter, yet another sign of their enduring friendship.