See study by C. A. Leonard (1971).
Owen Josephus Roberts (May 2, 1875 – May 17, 1955) was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court for fifteen years. He also led the fact-finding commission that investigated the attack on Pearl Harbor.
He first gained notice as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. He was appointed by President Coolidge to investigate oil reserve scandals, known as Teapot Dome Scandals. This led to the prosecution and conviction of Albert B. Fall, the former Secretary of the Interior, for bribe taking.
On the Court, Roberts was a swing vote between those, led by Justices Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, and Harlan Fiske Stone, as well as Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who would allow a broader interpretation of the Commerce Clause to allow Congress to pass New Deal legislation that would provide for a more active federal role in the national economy, and the Four Horsemen (Justices James Clark McReynolds, Pierce Butler, George Sutherland, and Willis Van Devanter) who favored a narrower interpretation of the Commerce Clause and believed that the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause protected a strong "liberty of contract."
Roberts switched his position on the constitutionality of the New Deal in late 1936, and the Supreme Court handed down West Coast Hotel v. Parrish in 1937, upholding the constitutionality of minimum wage laws. Subsequently, the Court would vote to uphold all New Deal programs. Since President Roosevelt's plan to appoint several new justices as part of his "Court-packing" plan of 1937 coincided with the Court's favorable decision in Parrish, many people called Roberts's vote in that case the "switch in time that saved nine," although Roberts's vote in Parrish occurred several months before announcement of the Court-packing plan. While Roberts is often accused of inconsistency in his jurisprudential stance towards the New Deal, legal scholars note that he had previously argued for a broad interpretation of government power in the 1934 case of Nebbia v. New York, and so his later vote in Parrish was not a complete reversal.
Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the landmark case New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co., , safeguarding a right to boycott and in the struggle by African Americans against discriminatory hiring practices. He also wrote the majority opinion sustaining provisions of the second Agricultural Adjustment Act applied to the marketing of tobacco in Mulford v. Smith, .
Roberts was appointed by Roosevelt to head the commission investigating the attack on Pearl Harbor; his report was published in 1942 and was highly critical of the United States Military. Perhaps influenced by his work on the Pearl Harbor commission, Roberts dissented from the Court's decision upholding internment of Japanese-Americans along the West Coast in 1944's Korematsu v. United States.
In his later years on the bench, Roberts was the only Justice on the Supreme Court not appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roberts became frustrated with the willingness of the new justices to overturn precedent and with what he saw as their result-oriented liberalism as judges. Roberts dissented bitterly in the 1944 case of Smith v. Allwright, which in finding the white primary unconstitutional overruled an opinion Roberts himself had written nine years previously. It was in his dissent in that case that he coined the oft-quoted phrase that the frequent overruling of decisions "tends to bring adjudications of this tribunal into the same class as a restricted railroad ticket, good for this day and train only." Roberts retired from the Court not long after, in 1945; Roberts's relations with his colleagues had become so strained that fellow Justice Hugo Black refused to sign the customary letter acknowledging Roberts's service on his retirement.
He died at his Chester County (Pennsylvania) farm after a four month illness. He was survived by his wife, Elizabeth Caldwell Rogers, and daughter, Elizabeth Hamilton.