Dinner with Felix Frankfurter

January 6, 2023 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

Which three persons, living or dead, would you invite to a dinner party? The New York Times Book Review regularly asks this question in interviews. After reading Georgetown Law professor Brad Snyder’s fascinating biography, Democratic Justice: Felix Frankfurter, the Supreme Court, and the Making of the Liberal Establishment, I propose Justice Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965) as an exciting guest for one of those dinner slots.

Celebrated as a brilliant, enthralling teacher and a witty, charming raconteur, Frankfurter was also a human dynamo. He filled one lifetime with several lifetimes worth of activity – federal government lawyer, Harvard law professor, civil rights activist, Zionist leader, advisor to leading figures in law, government, and journalism – all that and a Supreme Court Justice too!

An Immigrant Success Story

As Professor Snyder recounts, Felix Frankfurter was 11 years old when he arrived in New York City with his family, emigrants from Vienna. He spoke no English, a lack that was quickly remedied by his public-school teacher; she threatened to hit any child who spoke to Felix in German. Before long, Felix was a star student and voracious reader of English-language books and newspapers. By age 19, he completed City College of New York’s combined high school and college program. He went on to Harvard Law School, graduating as the top student in his class.

Despite glowing Harvard recommendations, Frankfurter, as a Jew, was unwelcome at many Wall Street law firms. He finally landed a position at a prestigious firm (even after declining his interviewer’s suggestion to change his surname). Within months, though, he left private practice to work for Henry Stimson, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (and subsequently Secretary of War under Presidents Taft, Roosevelt, and Truman). This was the first of several federal government positions Frankfurter held. He developed expertise in criminal law, antitrust, public utilities, and labor issues while becoming a trusted advisor to numerous public figures and a close confidant of Franklin Roosevelt.

The Harvard Years

In 1914, Frankfurter joined the faculty of Harvard Law School. For 25 years, he taught and mentored students, inspiring many to choose careers in public service. He placed scores of graduates (dubbed Frankfurter’s “happy hot dogs”) in key government posts. In fact, in Snyder’s view, “Frankfurter made his greatest contribution to twentieth century America’s liberal democracy as a talent scout.”

On the side, Frankfurter immersed himself in civil rights and social justice causes, including the controversial defense of anarchists/accused murderers Sacco and Vanzetti. He became a leader in the American Zionist movement and served on its delegation to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. With others, he helped persuade Harry Truman to be the first world leader to recognize the State of Israel in 1948.

The Supreme Court

During his Supreme Court tenure (1939-62), Frankfurter surprised those who knew him as a civil rights champion. Although he played a key role in the Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down segregation in public schools, Frankfurter firmly believed in judicial restraint and often deferred to state and federal legislatures. Wrote Frankfurter, “As a member of this court I am not justified in writing my private notions of policy into the Constitution, no matter how deeply I may cherish them or how mischievous I may deem their disregard.”

At a time when the country is fiercely divided over the Supreme Court’s role in social issues (e.g., abortion, gun control, voting rights), Snyder believes that Frankfurter’s philosophy of judicial restraint is worth re-visiting. We’ll ask Frankfurter about it – and his amazing life – when he comes to dinner.