Owen Josephus Roberts

Owen Josephus Roberts

Roberts, Owen Josephus, 1875-1955, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1930-45), b. Philadelphia. After receiving (1898) his law degree from the Univ. of Pennsylvania, he practiced law in Philadelphia, taught (1898-1918) at the Univ. of Pennsylvania, and served as assistant district attorney (1901-4) of Philadelphia co. During World War I he was appointed by the U.S. Attorney General to prosecute cases involving espionage, and he became nationally known as a prosecuting attorney in the Teapot Dome scandal (1924). Appointed (1930) to the Supreme Court by President Hoover, Roberts faced with other justices the problems of legislation for a depression economy. After 1935 he allied himself with the conservative group, but later he supported New Deal legislation. He was appointed to investigate the Pearl Harbor disaster. After he resigned from the Supreme Court, he was (1948-51) dean of the Univ. of Pennsylvania law school. He wrote The Court and the Constitution (1951).

See study by C. A. Leonard (1971).

Owen Josephus Roberts (May 2, 1875May 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.

Early life and career

Roberts was born in Philadelphia and attended Germantown Academy and the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian. He completed his bachelors degree in 1895, and went on to graduate at the top of his class from University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1898.

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.

Supreme Court

Roberts was appointed to the Supreme Court by Herbert Hoover after Hoover's nomination of John J. Parker was defeated by the Senate.

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."

In 1936's United States v. Butler, Roberts sided with the Four Horsemen and wrote an opinion striking down the Agricultural Adjustment Act as beyond Congress's Commerce powers.

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.

Later life

Roberts later served as the Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

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.

Germantown Academy named their debate society after Owen J. Roberts in his honor. In addition, his name was adopted as the name of a school district near Pottstown, Pennsylvania.


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