Robert H. Jackson was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1941 and served until his death in 1954.
Jackson is considered one of the most eloquent and quoted writers of the Supreme Court justices. He is also known for his independence during his time on the Supreme Court bench, relying on his own legal thinking over prevailing public opinion.
Jackson participated in some of the most controversial trials of the 20 th Century—including >West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, Korematsu v. U.S., and Brown v. Board of Education — each summarized below.
West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette
A West Virginia town demanded that two girls who were Jehovah’s Witnesses recite the Pledge of Allegiance, even though it was against their religion. Jackson wrote the majority opinion, which invoked a First Amendment “right of silence” to declare unconstitutional a state law requiring school children to salute the flag—a controversial decision considering that the nation was at war.
“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” he wrote, “it is that no official can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”
Korematsu v. U.S
The Supreme Court yielded to the government policy of relocating Japanese-Americans into camps during World War II. Justice Hugo Black, with whom Jackson clashed on multiple occasions, wrote the majority opinion against Korematsu, and Jackson disagreed. In Jackson’s opinion, the court’s majority decision set a dangerous precedent, one of allowing evacuation based only on race.
He said, “Here is an attempt to make an otherwise innocent act a crime merely because this prisoner is the son of parents as to whom he had no choice, and belongs to a race from which there is no way to resign.”
Brown v. Board of Education
In the last case of Jackson’s career, all nine judges of the Supreme Court made a unanimous decision to stop the segregation of public schools. Jackson was fervently opposed to segregation, saying that “segregation has outlived whatever justification it may have had,” but he still had reservations about the court’s decision. He was unconvinced that the Supreme Court justices should be the ones to dictate such a major change in society, and also doubted the court’s ability to enforce the decision—a doubt that proved to be right . . . .
Jackson firmly believed in the strength of the law, saying “law, as the expression of the ultimate will and wisdom of a people, has so far proven the safest guardian of liberty yet devised.”
Sources for this page include:
- From “Albany In the Life Trajectory of Robert H. Jackson,” The Albany Law Review, 2004-2005, by John Q. Barrett, Professor of Law, St. John’s University School of Law.
- Robert H. Jackson, by Gail Jarrow, published by Calkins Creek, 2008.
- Albany Law School records and publications.
- The Robert H. Jackson Center Web site: www.roberthjackson.org