Like his father before him, William Eldred Jackson farmed a meager plot of land in Spring Creek Township, Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Angelina Houghwout, had a child who would never earn a law degree, but he would go on to be one of the most important members of the United States Department of Justice in the 20th century.
Robert Houghwout Jackson was born on February 13, 1892. He graduated from Frewsburg High School in 1909 and spent an extra year at nearby Jamestown High School to work on his writing. Jackson did not waffle on his career choice. Understanding that a college degree was not a prerequisite to become an attorney in New York if the individual in question learned law under the guidance of an established lawyer, Jackson immediately went to work for a firm in Jamestown, New York. His uncle, Frank Mott, who happened to be a partner at the same firm, aided him in his prospects.
During this time, Mott introduced his nephew to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who at the time had been elected to the New York State Senate. Jackson took a year to prepare for the New York bar exam at Albany Law School, returned to Jamestown for further studies, and passed the exam in 1913 when he was just 21 years old.
He went on to work for another firm in Jamestown for several years. In 1916, he married Irene Alice Gerhardt and, one year later, a high profile Buffalo firm recruited him to work for one of their main clients, the International Railway Company. A year later, he was recruited back to Jamestown, where he stayed for 15 years. During this time, he joined and led various legal organizations and bar associations.
Jackson also began to dip his toes into local politics. He led a local campaign in support of Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 campaign and served as a member of the New York State Democratic Committee during WWI. This brought him back into contact with Franklin Roosevelt, who was elected Governor of New York in 1929.
After refusing numerous appointments to work for Roosevelt at the state level, Jackson finally acquiesced in 1934 when the New York politician was elected President of the United States. He entered initially as Assistant General Counsel of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Internal Revenue (the body that later became the IRS) and progressed to Assistant Attorney General in 1936, leading first the Tax Division of the Department of Justice and then the Antitrust Division.
As a member of Roosevelt’s administration, he supported the president’s New Deal as it was successfully litigated against several corporations and holding companies, the most famous of which were two cases leveled against Andrew Mellon. Jackson proved himself an adept and agile lawyer, a man who both prosecuted and defended large corporations within a 20-year period.
In the following years, his upward trajectory continued. He was promoted in 1938 to Solicitor General, the individual in charge of representing the federal government before the Supreme Court. Two years later, he became the Attorney General. At his post, one of his major projects included aiding Roosevelt in establishing the Lend-Lease agreement, which allowed the U.S. to supply material support to the Allied Powers before the U.S. formally entered WWII.
After just one year as Attorney General, Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone retired. Associate Justice Charles Evans Hughes filled his role and Roosevelt appointed Jackson to take Hughes’ place.
A volume could be written about Jackson’s tenure as Supreme Court Justice. He presided on the court during some of the momentous cases of the century, such as those occurring during the Civil Rights Movement and Cold War. He earned a reputation as a right-of-center Justice who wrote with one of the most eloquent hands ever witnessed on the 9th Circuit.
Some of that writing occurred during the case of Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952). The case resulted from President Harry Truman’s effort to take control of steel mills during the Korean War in order to avoid a strike and maintain production. Jackson’s opinion established a three-tiered system for determining the scope of presidential power. These follow, in descending order of importance as:
-cases in which the president acts with authority granted by Congress
-cases in which Congress has not provided an opinion, referred to by Jackson as the ‘zone of twilight’
-cases in which the president acts in willful disregard of congressional orders
Both Supreme Court nominees Samuel Alito and John Roberts cited the decision while testifying during their nomination hearings.
Justice Jackson also penned an important development to the limitations on the First Amendment. Prior to Jackson’s tenure on the Court, the 1919 case Schenck v. United States had most recently placed limitations on free speech. It involved American Socialists who were convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 for distributing pamphlets stating that Americans had a right to refuse the WWI draft because the Constitution did not provide for military conscription. At the time, Justice Holmes agreed with the decision of the lower circuits, saying that when free speech brought about a “clear and present danger,” Americans’ rights to expression were limited.
The issue was revived in Dennis v. United States, which involved Communist Party members seeking to teach and spread Leninist writings. Jackson argued that the doctrine of “clear and present danger” did not apply to Communist tactics, for they were far more devious and clandestine. As one observer summarized, Jackson’s concurrence expressed that, “when used as part of a conspiracy to act illegally, speech loses its First Amendment protection.”
Jackson, like many Cold War justices, was a staunch enemy of Communism. While few of his opinions reflect his own personal bias, he generally supported American Democracy and the expanded power of the federal government. As a member of the Roosevelt Administration, for example, he had supported a bill granting the federal government greater liberties in terms of surveillance.
As one of the more conservative justices of the mid-century Court, one of Jackson’s modus operandi was the (attempted) complete removal of his own personal bias when it came to jurisprudence. This brought him to loggerheads with Justice Hugo Black. According to Dennis Hutchinson, editor of The Supreme Court Review, Jackson once said, “With few exceptions, we all knew which side of a case Black would vote on when he read the names of the parties.” While this caused some strife in the Court, Jackson and the more liberal Black at times found themselves agreeing anyway, especially when it came to issues of procedural due process.
As a litigator who had argued both for and against corporate interests, among other things, Jackson at times demonstrated a troubling lack of ideological commitment. Long after his death, for example, during the confirmation process of one of his former clerks, William Rehnquist, a short memo from the deliberations of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) surfaced in which Jackson supported maintaining the “separate but equal” doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).
One of Jackson’s most notorious roles came during the aftermath of WWII. Jackson had taken a leave of absence from the Court in 1945. He didn’t have much free time; President Truman shortly appointed him as the U.S. Chief of Counsel to head up the Nuremburg Trials during which ranking Nazi officers were persecuted for war crimes.
Despite his firm commitment to remove personal bias from jurisprudence, Jackson eagerly accepted the appointment and pursued each case with a full-hearted interest. Characteristic of Jackson, his opening and closing remarks were written with great eloquence that drew the admiration of many present. One influential opinion expressed by Jackson was the definite guilt of the Nazi party, but that the German people at large should not be held responsible for the wrongs committed by Hitler’s administration.
According to many individuals present, this was the extent of Jackson’s positive additions to the trials. He is reported to have been somewhat weak in the cross-examination, especially during Hermann Goring’s trial. Goring apparently successfully caused Jackson to lose his temper and, it was the British prosecutor, David Maxwell-Fyfe, who delivered a successful conviction of the Nazi officer.
On March 30, 1954, Jackson suffered a heat attack. He was hospitalized, endured more cardiac events, and died on October 9th of the same year. Several New York buildings have been named after the justice, including the Robert H. Jackson United States Courthouse in Buffalo.
He is remembered as one of the most eloquent writers in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court. His opinions continue to be cited and many of his concurrences, especially regarding presidential power and the First Amendment, still apply today.