History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  The Rosenberg Trial
Learn about the case -- historical background and documents


Justice Felix Frankfurter

Felix Frankfurter served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1939 to 1962. Throughout the Supreme Court’s deliberations on the various petitions from the Rosenbergs, Frankfurter consistently voted to hear arguments on the case. As in many other cases, Frankfurter was concerned with the public image of the Court and in maintaining public confidence in the judicial process. In the final proceeding in the case before the Supreme Court, Frankfurter joined William Douglas and Hugo Black in dissenting from the Court’s ruling that lifted the stay of execution Douglas had granted the Rosenbergs. Frankfurter believed that the questions regarding the sentencing provisions of the Atomic Espionage Act were too complex to be resolved without more time for consideration. Three years later, Frankfurter wrote the recently appointed Justice John Marshall Harlan that “the Rosenberg case is the most disgusting, saddest, despicable episode in the Court’s history in my lifetime.”

Frankfurter was born on November 15, 1882, to a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. His family immigrated to the United States in 1894 and settled on New York City’s Lower East Side. Frankfurter graduated from the College of the City of New York in 1902, and shortly thereafter entered Harvard Law School.

After law school and a short stint in private practice, Frankfurter served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York under U.S. Attorney Henry Stimson. When Stimson was named secretary of war, he put Frankfurter in charge of the Bureau of Insular Affairs, which oversaw United States territories.

In 1914, Frankfurter was appointed the first Jewish professor at Harvard Law School and became one of the nation’s leading legal scholars. He placed many of his students as law clerks to Supreme Court justices. He also participated in progressive causes, most notably by advocating a new trial for condemned Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Frankfurter frequently worked with the federal government during the New Deal, helping to draft legislation, including the Securities Act, the Social Security Act, the Revenue Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt nominated Frankfurter to replace Justice Benjamin Cardozo on the Supreme Court. Like many Progressives who came of age in the early twentieth century, Frankfurter believed in a kind of judicial restraint through which courts deferred to elected legislatures. This restraint often separated him from other Supreme Court justices in the years after the Second World War when the Court was more active in protecting civil liberties and defending federal authority. Frankfurter was a critic of the death penalty and believed the Supreme Court should accept any petition appealing a federal death sentence.

Throughout his tenure on the Supreme Court, Frankfurter frequently clashed with other strong-willed justices, and was particularly critical of Douglas and Black, even though he joined them in dissent in the Rosenberg case. Frankfurter retired from the Court in 1962, and died three years later, on February 22, 1965, in Washington, D.C.

Justice Felix Frankfurter
Harris & Ewing Collection
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress [LC-DIG-hec-21701]


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