F.F. — Make of him what you will, but . . .

Felix Frankfurter

Felix Frankfurter

I want to recommend a relatively new article in the Journal of Supreme Court History. It is impressively researched, commendably thoughtful, and refreshingly balanced. Before doing so, however, permit me to say a few prefatory words.

It is hard to be fair when writing of those with whom we disagree, and harder still when we dislike their personal manner. Arrogant, argumentative, and devious – these are not the words that fair-minded scholars like to use unless the fit is fair. All of which takes us back in time to this man: Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965).

What to make of him?

As a Supreme Court Justice he was, in Mel Urofsky’s words, “a divisive figure whose jurisprudential philosophy is all but ignored today.” Others have been even less kind in their assessment of the temperament and jurisprudence of the Justice from Vienna. While Cass Sunstein has recently labored to revive respect for Justice Frankfurter and his judicial opinions, that effort may prove Sisyphean (save, perhaps, in a few discrete areas involving federal jurisdiction).

Still, there was more to Felix Frankfurter than the life he led on the Court between 1939 and 1962. The trajectory of his career (fueled by hard work, ambition, and brilliance) is an immigrant-come-to-America success story at its best. His work – first with Louis Brandeis and then on his own – to advance the cause of fair and humane labor practices exemplifies the Progressive movement in its glory. Then there was the role he played early on in helping to launch the ACLU. With a mix of courage and insight, he later called for a retrial for Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti by way of an impressive lawyer-like article he published in the Atlantic in 1927; the article was thereafter expanded into a small book. And, of course, there is more, much more, which brings me back to that article I alluded to earlier.

Sujit Raman

Sujit Raman

Sujit Raman (the chief appellate lawyer in Maryland’s U.S. Attorney’s office) has just published an engaging and highly informative article. Its title: “Felix Frankfurter and His Protégés: Re-examining the ‘Happy Hot Dogs.’” It captures Felix in all his complexity and does so with objective nuance. With skilled brevity Raman also sketches the story of the Jewish immigrant’s struggle to assimilate, the Harvard Law student’s meritocratic success, the progressive’s desire to improve government when he went to work for Henry Stimson (first in New York and then in Washington, D.C), and then the Harvard professor’s cultivation of the best and brightest, whom he invited to his Sunday teas.

Above all, Sujit Raman’s real story is about Felix Frankfurter’s “greatest legacy,” namely, the “legions of students he trained and nurtured at the Harvard Law School, . . . who, in their own right, shaped the age in which they lived.” Consistent with that objective, Frankfurter’s “avowed intent as a professor was to instill in his students an interest in public service, and from his earliest days, he began collecting recruits for his crusade.” In time, they would come to be known as Frankfurter’s “Happy Hot Dogs” as Hugh Samuel Johnson tagged them.MTE5NTU2MzE2MjE5NDc1NDY3

Could he be snobbish? Yes. Could he be petty? Yes. Spiteful? Yes. Did he delight in manipulating matters from unseen sidelines? Yes again.

Clearly, F.F. had his psychological warts. Yet, when one steps back and beholds the man and this patch of his life work at a detached distance, he stands rather tall. Why?

Now, to cut to the chase: “Frankfurter was one of the New Deal’s intellectual architects as well as one of its most accomplished draftsmen of policy – yet he had no legislative portfolio or any official position in the Roosevelt Administration.” Moreover, adds Raman, “Frankfurter was the New Deal’s principal recruiting agent. He placed his protégés in all levels of government, and consequently his vision was carried forth, albeit indirectly, by his able lieutenants.” In sum, “the New Deal was in many ways the embodiment and culmination of Frankfurter’s life work.”

James Landis

James Landis

In the span of 28 pages (buttressed by 127 scholarly endnotes), Sujit Raman fills in many of the blanks in the Professor-and-the-New-Deal story. While he is cautious not to exaggerate Frankfurter’s role and influence, Raman’s account makes it difficult to deny the remarkable magnitude of Frankfurter’s unique impact on public law and its operation at a crucial stage in our legal history.

True, the “Happy Hot Dogs” story has been told before and from a variety of perspectives (see, e.g.,  here and here). Even so, Mr. Raman does what others before him have not quite done: he tells the story in a concise yet authoritative way and with enough panache to draw the reader back in history for glimpses into the exciting world of F.F. and his adept protégés – the likes of Thomas G. Corcoran (video here), Benjamin V. CohenJames M. Landis, David Lilienthal, and Charles Wyzanski, among others. They were all part of Frankfurter’s network, all “elite lawyers” hand picked because of their ties to F.F. and their “reformist inclinations.”

Whatever your opinion of Felix Frankfurter, his star may yet brighten anew, though probably not in the universe of Supreme Court history and jurisprudence. His true galaxy was elsewhere – in that realm where the “minds of men” move the gears of government to places only once imagined in classrooms in Cambridge.

Ask your librarian for, or go online or order a copy of, Sujit Raman’s illuminating article in volume 39 (March 2014, #1, pp. 79-106)) of the Journal of Supreme Court History. Better still, join the Supreme Court Historical Society. Either way, it will serve you well.

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5 Responses

  1. Orin Kerr says:

    Ron, your post has me scratching my head.

    In my experience, Frankfurter’s jurisprudence was and remains very influential. He was one of the Court’s leading advocates of judicial restraint, and he remains closely associated with that important school of constitutional thought. He makes Cass Sunstein’s list of top Justices, and he would probably make mine, too. Did I miss the memo on why we’re supposed to think he is so terrible, so much that it requires “prefatory words” before saying positive things about him?

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  3. Joe says:

    The OP mentions Cass Sunstein. The “prefatory words” speaks in general terms — “of those with whom we disagree” etc.

    “It is hard to be fair when writing of those with whom we disagree, and harder still when we dislike their personal manner. Arrogant, argumentative, and devious – these are not the words that fair-minded scholars like to use unless the fit is fair.”

    The comments thus also suggest why some specifically don’t like him. Scratching my head on the confusion except for a difference of opinion on his legacy though some of the other side (though one link is only for payment) are cited to give another view.

  4. Gerard Magliocca says:

    Orin,

    Because FF was a terrible writer. His opinions are awfully verbose and unclear.

  5. Orin Kerr says:

    Gerard, I disagree. He’s not my favorite writer, but I certainly wouldn’t call him “terrible.” Further, I can’t say I recall others criticizing Frankfurter for his writing.

    Joe, as has happened before, I think you’re missing the point. Please re-read my comment.