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Owen Roberts

Owen Josephus Roberts
Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court
In office
May 20, 1930[1] – July 31, 1945
Nominated by Herbert Hoover
Preceded by Edward Terry Sanford
Succeeded by Harold Hitz Burton
Personal details
Born May 2, 1875
Philadelphia, PA
Died May 17, 1955 (aged 80)
West Vincent, PA
Political party Republican
Education University of Pennsylvania Law School
Religion Episcopalian

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 two Roberts Commissions, the first that investigated the attack on Pearl Harbor and the second that focused on works of cultural value during the war. At the time of World War II, he was the only Supreme Court Justice who was not appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, meaning that he was also the only Republican appointed Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States[1] He was also one of only three justices to vote against Franklin D. Roosevelt's orders for Japanese American internment camps in Korematsu v. United States.


  • Early life and career 1
  • Supreme Court 2
    • "Switch in Time that Saved the Nine" 2.1
    • Other rulings and Roberts Commissions 2.2
    • Retirement 2.3
  • Later life 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • Citations 6
  • References 7
  • Sources 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10

Early life and career

Roberts was born in Philadelphia and attended Germantown Academy and the University of Pennsylvania, where he was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society[2] and was the editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. He completed his bachelor's degree in 1895 and went on to graduate at the top of his class from University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1898.[3]

He first gained notice as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. He was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge to investigate oil reserve scandals, known as the Teapot Dome scandal. 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 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 taxing and spending powers.

"Switch in Time that Saved the Nine"

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, however, had sided with the four conservative justices in finding a similar state minimum wage in New York unconstitutional[4] in June 1936. Because the announcement of the Parrish decision took place in March 1937, one month after Roosevelt announced his plan to pack the court, it created speculation that Roberts had voted in favor of the Washington's state minimum wage law because he had succumbed to political pressure.

However, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes contended in his autobiographical notes that Roosevelt's attempt to pack the court "had not the slightest effect" on the court's ruling in the Parrish case[5] and records showed that Roberts indicated his desire to uphold Washington state's minimum wage law two months prior to Roosevelt's court-packing announcement in December 1936.[6] On December 19, 1936, two days after oral arguments ended for the Parrish case, Roberts voted in favor of Washington's state minimum wage law, but the Supreme Court was divided 4–4 because pro-New Deal Associate Justice Harlan Fiske Stone was absent due to an illness;[6] Hughes contended that this long delay in the Parrish case's announcement led to false speculation that Roosevelt's court packing plan intimidated the court into ruling in favor of the New Deal.[5] Roberts and Hughes both acknowledged that because of the overwhelming support that had been shown for the New Deal through Roosevelt's re-election in November 1936,[7] Hughes was able to persuade Roberts to no longer base his votes on his own political beliefs and side with him during future votes on New Deal related policies[7][8] In one of his notes from 1936, Hughes wrote that Roosevelt's re-election forced the court to depart from "its fortress in public opinion" and severely weakened its capability to base its rulings on personal or political beliefs.[7]

Other rulings and Roberts Commissions

Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the landmark case of New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co., 303 U.S. 552 (1938), which safeguarded the right to boycott in the context of 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, 307 U.S. 38 (1939).

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. Journalist John T. Flynn wrote at the time that Roosevelt's appointment of Roberts:[9]

was a master stroke. What the public overlooked was that Roberts had been one of the most clamorous among those screaming for an open declaration of war. He had doffed his robes, taken to the platform in his frantic apprehensions and demanded that we immediately unite with Great Britain in a single nation. The Pearl Harbor incident had given him what he had been yelling for – America's entrance into the war. On the war issue he was one of the President's most impressive allies. Now he had his wish. He could be depended on not to cast any stain upon it in its infancy.

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.

The second Roberts Commission was established in 1943 to consolidate earlier efforts on a national basis with the US Army to help protect Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives in war zones.[10] The commission ran until 1946, when its activities were consolidated into the State Department

In his later years on the bench, Roberts was the only Justice on the Supreme Court not appointed (or in the case of Stone, who had become Chief Justice, promoted) 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 the following year, 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. Other justices refused to sign a modified letter that would have been acceptable to Black, and in the end, no letter was ever sent.

Shortly after leaving the Court, Roberts reportedly burned all of his legal and judicial papers. As a result, there is no significant collection of Roberts' manuscript papers, as there is for most other modern Justices. Roberts did prepare a short memorandum discussing his alleged change of stance around the time of the court-packing effort, which he left in the hands of Justice Felix Frankfurter.[11]

Later life

While in retirement Roberts, along with Robert P. Bass, convened the Dublin Declaration, a plan to change the U.N. General Assembly into a world legislature with "limited but definite and adequate power for the prevention of war."[12]

Roberts served as the Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School from 1948 to 1951.

He died at his Chester County, Pennsylvania, farm known as the Strickland-Roberts Homestead after a four-month illness.[13] He was survived by his wife, Elizabeth Caldwell Rogers, and daughter, Elizabeth Hamilton.

Germantown Academy named its debate society after Owen J. Roberts in his honor. In addition, a school district near Pottstown, Pennsylvania, the Owen J. Roberts School District, was named after him.

In 1946, Roberts was the first layperson elected to serve as President of the House of Deputies for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (United States). He served for one convention.[14]

See also


  1. ^ Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone had been appointed as an Associate Justice by Republican President Calvin Coolidge but was elevated to Chief Justice by Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt, so more properly Roberts was the only Justice who had never been appointed by a Democrat.


  1. ^ "Federal Judicial Center: Owen Roberts". December 12, 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-12. 
  2. ^ Supreme Court Justices Who Are Phi Beta Kappa Members, Phi Beta Kappa website, accessed Oct 4, 2009
  3. ^ Portrait at the University of Pennsylvania
  4. ^ Lorant, Stefan (1968). The Glorious Burden: The American Presidency. New York, Harper and Row. p. 628.  
  5. ^ a b McKenna, Marian C. (2002). Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Constitutional War: The Court-packing Crisis of 1937. New York, NY: Fordham University Press. p. 419.  
  6. ^ a b McKenna, Marian C. (2002). Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Constitutional War: The Court-packing Crisis of 1937. New York, NY: Fordham University Press. p. 414.  
  7. ^ a b c Devins, Neal (1996). "Government Lawyers and the New Deal". William & Mary Law School. Retrieved July 8, 2012. 
  8. ^ McKenna, Marian C. (2002). Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Constitutional War: The Court-packing Crisis of 1937. New York, NY: Fordham University Press. pp. 422–423.  
  9. ^ Flynn, John. "The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor" (October 1945)
  10. ^ Roberts Commission, Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art webpage. Retrieved 2013-05-30.
  11. ^ Roberts, Justice Owen J. (November 9, 1945). "Roberts Memorandum".  
  13. ^ "National Historic Landmarks & National Register of Historic Places in Pennsylvania" (Searchable database). ARCH: Pennsylvania's Historic Architecture & Archaeology. Retrieved 2012-11-02.  Note: This includes Virginia Stoudt, Estelle Cremers, and Kelly Murphy, III (n.d.). "National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form: Strickland-Roberts Homestead" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-11-20. 
  14. ^ Barnes, C. Rankin, "The General Convention Offices and Officers 1785-1950"


  • "Owen Roberts Dies; Former Justice, 80".  
  • "The Roberts Commission and Pearl Harbor," in Kenneth Kitts, Presidential Commissions and National Security (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006).
  • Germantown Academy, Clubs and Organizations


Further reading

  • Abraham, Henry J., Justices and Presidents: A Political History of Appointments to the Supreme Court. 3d. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). ISBN 0-19-506557-3.
  • Cushman, Clare, The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies,1789-1995 (2nd ed.) (Supreme Court Historical Society), (Congressional Quarterly Books, 2001) ISBN 1-56802-126-7; ISBN 978-1-56802-126-3.
  • Frank, John P., The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions (Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, editors) (Chelsea House Publishers: 1995) ISBN 0-7910-1377-4, ISBN 978-0-7910-1377-9.
  • Martin, Fenton S. and Goehlert, Robert U., The U.S. Supreme Court: A Bibliography, (Congressional Quarterly Books, 1990). ISBN 0-87187-554-3.
  • Urofsky, Melvin I., The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary (New York: Garland Publishing 1994). 590 pp. ISBN 0-8153-1176-1; ISBN 978-0-8153-1176-8.

External links

  • Owen J. Roberts profile by historian Rob Lukens
Legal offices
Preceded by
Edward Terry Sanford
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
May 20, 1930 – July 31, 1945
Succeeded by
Harold Hitz Burton
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