Barrett to trace Jackson’s life with focus on years as justice

The story of Robert H. Jackson is uniquely American.

His journey from Chautauqua County farm boy to the pre-eminent legal mind of his time followed an unlikely path. He did not go to college and spent only a year in law school, yet he is the only American to have served as solicitor general, attorney general and associate justice of the Supreme Court. His crowning achievement came not in the United States, but in Nuremberg, Germany, where he was the chief prosecutor of Nazi war criminals in a trial that reaffirmed the rule of law in a world torn apart by the lawless atrocities of a criminal regime.

In a fitting end to Week Five’s theme, “The Supreme Court: At a Tipping Point?,” John Q. Barrett, a professor of law at St. John’s University, will present “Justice Robert H. Jackson and His Brethren’’ at 3:30 p.m. Friday in the Hall of Philosophy as part of the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series. Barrett, who has been working on a biography of Jackson for more than 10 years, will outline Jackson’s life with a particular focus on his years as a justice. This will be Barrett’s 18th appearance at Chautauqua on different platforms and programs.

“It’s a great privilege to come here,” he said. “I always learn a lot. The Supreme Court is permanently significant, but, right now, I think it is extra significant.”


Robert Houghwout Jackson was born on a farm in Spring Creek, Warren County, Pennsylvania, on Feb. 13, 1892. Several years later, he moved with his family to a farm in Frewsburg outside Jamestown. He attended public school there and took an extra year of high school in Jamestown. During his childhood — and throughout his life — Jackson turned to Chautauqua Institution for its educational and cultural offerings. He was especially impressed with William Jennings Bryan, the populist orator and two-time presidential candidate, whom he saw in the Amphitheater in 1908, Barrett said. At 18, Jackson began studying law with his uncle, Frank Mott, a partner in a local law firm. In those days, an apprenticeship with a practicing lawyer was a relatively common way to earn a law degree. He also studied at Albany Law School before passing the bar.

Jackson’s uncle was a friend of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and introduced the two when Jackson was still a teenager. They became close friends and political allies until Roosevelt’s death in 1945. Jackson became active in Democratic politics in Jamestown before World War I and moved on to the state Democratic Committee. After Roosevelt was elected governor in 1929, he appointed Jackson to various state positions. Jackson was active in Roosevelt’s presidential campaign, and when his mentor became president, he was appointed to a series of federal posts in the Treasury and Justice departments.

In 1938, Jackson was appointed solicitor general of the United States and for over two years in that role argued about 50 cases before the Supreme Court, winning all but six, Barrett said. As the end of Roosevelt’s second term approached, Jackson was prominently mentioned as a candidate for governor of New York and even as a candidate for president, Barrett said, but with the advent of war in Europe, Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, and Jackson agreed to serve as attorney general. In that position, Jackson helped negotiate the Lend-Lease Act that allowed the United States to supply materials to the Allies to aid their war efforts. Jackson was nominated and approved to join the Supreme Court in 1941.

It was on the high court that Jackson really began to be noticed, writing eloquent decisions and dissents that are studied today.

“He is generally regarded as the best writer who ever served on the Supreme Court,” Barrett said. “Some would say Oliver Wendell Holmes was as good, but Jackson was the better writer.”

Two of the most prominent decisions that Jackson was involved with were landmark civil rights cases: Korematsu v. United States in 1944 and Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

The former case was a suit brought by Fred Korematsu, a native-born American of Japanese ancestry who argued that Roosevelt’s executive order in 1942 restricting the free movement of Japanese-American citizens and establishing internment camps was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld the government’s position, but Jackson wrote an impassioned dissent.

“Korematsu was born on our soil, of parents born in Japan,” he wrote. “The Constitution makes him a citizen of the United States by nativity, and a citizen of California by residence. No claim is made that he is not loyal to his country. There is no suggestion that apart from the matter involved here, he is not law-abiding and well-disposed. Korematsu, however, has been convicted of an act not commonly a crime. It consists of merely being present in the state whereof he is a citizen, near the place where he was born, and where all his life he has lived.” 

In Brown v. Board of Education, all nine justices, including Jackson, voted to overturn the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which enshrined state-sanctioned segregation of schools in the South as a matter of law.

“His whole life, he expressed strong views on equality and education,” Barrett said of Jackson.

Between those landmark cases, Jackson took a leave of absence from the court in 1945 at the behest of then President Harry S. Truman to be “the principal architect of the Nuremberg trials,” for which he served as chief prosecutor, Barrett said.

“Maybe the most important thing about Nuremberg was not what occurred in the courtroom, but what happened before the trial, how the trial would be conducted — with the right to counsel, due process and the possibility of acquittal,” Barrett said. “It was important that this not be a show trial, that the verdict not be preordained. That’s all Jackson. He was the driving force.”

Jackson was able to persuade his colleagues among the victorious Allies, crucially the Soviets, that a transparent trial of the leaders of Nazi Germany that would hold them accountable under international law was preferable to summary executions or an open-ended occupation of the country without a formal, legal resolution. And Jackson made it clear that the German people themselves were not on trial. Rather, their leaders were responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

At the trial’s conclusion, 12 prominent Nazis were sentenced to death. Others were given varying prison sentences. The trial served as a template for other war crimes tribunals for the perpetrators of atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and in Sierra Leone and Rwanda, following a gap of 50 years during the Cold War.

It is Nuremberg, Barrett and other scholars argue, that is Jackson’s lasting legacy.

“Civilization asks whether law is so laggard as to be utterly helpless to deal with crimes of this magnitude by criminals of this order of importance,” Jackson said in his opening remarks to the court in Nuremberg. “It does not expect that you can make war impossible. It does expect that your juridical action will put the forces of International Law, its precepts, its prohibitions and, most of all, its sanctions, on the side of peace, so that men and women of good will in all countries, may have ‘leave to live by no man’s leave, underneath the law.’ ”

Tags : Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture SeriesSupreme CourtThe Supreme Court: At a Tipping Point?Week Five

The author David Geary

David Geary has been a reporter and editor for more than 40 years. He retired in 2015 from The New York Times, where he was the late-night news editor. He also has worked for The Boston Globe and other newspapers. He currently freelances for the Times and for The Trace, a nonprofit journalism website focused on gun violence and gun policy in America. He lives in Westfield with his wife, Karin Henry.