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Portrait of Felix Frankfurter
Portrait of Felix Frankfurter.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.
Felix Frankfurter

b. November 15, 1882, Vienna, Austria
d. February 22, 1965, Washington, D.C.

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Born in Austria, where his family lived in the Jewish quarter of Vienna, Felix Frankfurter immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1894, during a period of mass immigration to America from eastern and southern Europe. He grew up in the impoverished tenements of New York's Lower East Side, attended tuition-free City College, and went on to Harvard Law School, graduating first in his class in 1906. That year, he worked briefly for a Wall Street law firm and was then appointed Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, under Henry L. Stimson. When President William Howard Taft appointed Stimson Secretary of War in 1911, Stimson made Frankfurter a law officer in the Bureau of Insular Affairs. During World War I, Frankfurter served as major and judge advocate. In 1919 he was a Zionist delegate to the Paris Peace Conference, and in 1920, he helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). From 1914 until 1939 he served on the faculty of Harvard Law School.

Despite his Jewish immigrant background and the relative poverty of his childhood, Frankfurter's academic career had been so stellar that he entered the world of the Eastern intellectual elite with self-confidence, and he became an ardent apologist for its meritocracy. He became a close personal friend of Justice Louis Brandeis, who acted as a mentor to him. In return, Frankfurter was a tireless advocate for students whose talents he respected, and he used his contacts to place them in prestigious Wall Street firms, in government agencies, and as clerks to such eminent figures as Justices Brandeis, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Learned Hand. Though an elitist, Frankfurter believed wholeheartedly in democracy and was no friend of social privilege. He felt that a person's position in the world should be earned, and that once a person had succeeded he should become a mentor, helping others rise according to their abilities.

In 1939 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt nominated Frankfurter to the Supreme Court. A supporter of progressive legislation, Frankfurter had watched in frustration during the 1920s and 1930s as the Supreme Court thwarted legislative efforts to achieve social justice. He concluded that the Court was overstepping its bounds as an institution. Once on the Court, Frankfurter quickly distinguished himself as an advocate for judicial restraint and saw himself as an heir to the passive judicial philosophy of Holmes and Brandeis, which granted wide latitude to elected bodies in determining policy so long as it did not "shock the conscience." In perhaps his most controversial decision (Minersville School District v. Gobitis [1940]), Frankfurter wrote for the majority upholding local school board regulations requiring all students, regardless of religious objections, to salute the flag and participate in the Pledge of Allegience. The ruling was quickly overruled by the Court in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). Personally he was outgoing and energetic, and he thrived on bare-knuckled intellectual debate. This endeared him to his friends but alienated others. As a justice, Frankfurter cannot be conveniently labeled either liberal or conservative, but the clarity, force, and intellectual substance of his opinions have made him one of the most respected of Supreme Court justices. He retired in 1962.

John Fox, a writer and documentary film producer, was series producer of the Emmy-winning PBS series HERITAGE: CIVILIZATION AND THE JEWS. Editor-in-chief of the award-winning HERITAGE DVD-ROM, he supervised the creation of its 540-map interactive atlas of world history. He is currently writing a book about the growth of communal intelligence over the centuries.

William O. Douglas Earl Warren John Marshall Harlan II William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Warren Burger view all biographies Hugo Black Felix Frankfurter Harry Blackmun Lewis F. Powell, Jr. William Rehnquist Sandra Day O'Connor