The 'Jewish Seat' On The Supreme Court

Here's a question from Carol Berman of Baltimore:

What can you tell me about a so-called "Jewish seat" on the Supreme Court?

It's not officially called that, of course. But after Associate Justice Benjamin Cardozo died in 1938, Felix Frankfurter succeeded him on the court. And when Frankfurter retired in 1962, President Kennedy named another Jew, Arthur Goldberg, to succeed him. That's when the term "Jewish seat" began to be widely used.

The tradition continued when Abe Fortas succeeded Goldberg in 1965.

The first Jew named to the court was Louis Brandeis, who was nominated by President Wilson in 1916. His nomination was met with angry debate, much of it blamed on anti-Semitism. Emotions ran so high that when Brandeis joined the court, another associate justice, James McReynolds, refused to sit next to him when the court had its official photo taken. While still on the court, Brandeis was joined by another Jew, Cardozo, who was named by President Hoover in 1932.

Compared with the outcry over Brandeis' nomination, however, the reaction to Cardozo was muted; unlike the Senate vote on Brandeis, when 22 senators voted no, Cardozo was approved by voice vote. It was Cardozo who essentially began the streak that became known as the "Jewish seat."

Cardozo's death in 1938 led to Frankfurter, who left the court in 1962 following a stroke and was succeeded by Goldberg. Following the death of United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson in 1965, President Johnson persuaded Goldberg to leave the court for the U.N. One reason for LBJ's maneuvering was to get his longtime ally/crony (take your pick) Abe Fortas (who also happened to be Jewish) on the court.

Goldberg may have been bamboozled into leaving the court — and that in itself is a fascinating story — but for Fortas the turmoil was worse. Johnson tried to elevate him to chief justice in 1968 after Earl Warren announced he wanted to step down. A filibuster led by Republicans and Southern Democrats forced Johnson to withdraw Fortas' name that year, though he did stay on the court. Then, a year later, Life magazine reported that Fortas took (though later returned) money from a foundation controlled by the family of Louis Wolfson, an indicted stock manipulator. The resulting uproar forced Fortas to quit the court in May of 1969, although he denied any wrongdoing.

In seeking a nominee to succeed Fortas, President Nixon had no desire to continue the "Jewish seat" tradition. After the Senate rejected his first two choices (Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell), Nixon settled on Harry Blackmun, a Methodist and longtime friend of Chief Justice Warren Burger. That ended the decades-long tradition of having a Jew on the court. It lasted until President Clinton named Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the court in 1993 and Stephen Breyer the following year; both still serve.

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