Owen Josephus Roberts Biography
Owen Josephus Roberts was an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court from 1930 until 1945. He is perhaps best known for overseeing the two Roberts Commissions, as well as for his role as the swing vote of a rather contentious lineup.
Early Life and Family
Owen Josephus Roberts was the son of Josephus R. Roberts, a hardware merchant, and Emma Lafferty Roberts. He was born on May 2, 1875, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a child, he attended the prestigious Germantown University, the oldest nonsectarian day school in the United States.
Roberts was married to Marion Denman, and later to Elizabeth Caldwell Rogers, who survived him. He had one daughter, Elizabeth Hamilton.
Education and Early Career
As a young man, Roberts attended the University of Pennsylvania. There, he was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the oldest honor society for the liberal arts and sciences in the United States. He was also the editor for the student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. In 1895 he completed his bachelor’s degree and went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he was the associate editor of American Law Register (now the University of Pennsylvania Law Record). He graduated at the top of his class in 1898.
After graduation, he divided his time between private law practice and teaching property law and contracts at the school for about 20 years. From 1903 until 1906, he worked as an associate district attorney for the city of Philadelphia, but then returned to his private practice.
In 1918, during World War I, Roberts was appointed as the special deputy attorney in charge of prosecuting violations of the Espionage Act of 1917. A few years later, President Calvin Coolidge appointed him as one of two attorneys in charge of investigating the Teapot Dome Scandal, a bribery case that affected the United States government from 1921 to 1922. Roberts’ methodical work ultimately led to the prosecution and conviction of Albert B. Fall, who had served as Secretary of the Interior under former President Warren G. Harding, in 1929.
Supreme Court Nomination and Positions
In 1930, President Herbert Hoover found himself with two Supreme Court vacancies due to the sudden deaths of Chief Justice William Howard Taft and Justice Edward T. Sanford. After one of his nominees, John J. Parker, was defeated by the Senate in a 41-39 vote, Hoover nominated Roberts, who managed to gain a unanimous confirmation on May 20, 1930.
While a conservative majority had ruled the court during the 1920s, the new court was divided by ideological lines. Three liberal justices — Louis Brandeis, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Harlan Fiske Stone — made up the so-called “Three Musketeers,” while the conservatives — George Sutherland, Pierce Butler, James McReynolds and Willis Van Devanter — were dubbed “the Four Horsemen.” Roberts, and his fellow newbie to the court Charles Evans Hughes, were sometimes counted with the liberal delegation but were generally regarded as swing votes. They were sometimes collectively dubbed “Hughbert.”
Roberts initially tended to side with the conservatives, and as a result, many New Deal programs were struck down. As a result, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came up with a plan to appoint up to 15 judges to the Supreme Court; this was theoretically legal, since the Constitution does not state how many justices the court is to have, but was a rather transparent attempt to pack it with those who would favor his causes. Around the time that this happened (March 1937), Roberts sided with the liberals in the case of West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, voting to uphold a minimum wage law in Washington state; he would subsequently side with them in every New Deal case, and as a result (as well as widespread disapproval of his plan), Roosevelt abandoned his idea to pack the court.
It has been widely speculated that Roberts purposely switched to the liberal side in order to preserve the court’s nine-member makeup, leading to the joke that his was “the switch in time that saved nine.” However, Hughes has disagreed with this interpretation in his autobiographical notes. He claims that Roberts had expressed his opinion to the other justices prior to the court-packing plan being announced, though their rulings were delayed being given to the public, and that Roosevelt’s plan “had not the slightest effect” on their decision. Roberts himself wrote a memorandum on the issue when he retired.
Roberts seemed to hold fairly progressive opinions on racial issues for his time; he wrote the majority opinion in New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co. (1938), which upheld the right of African-Americans to boycott in protest of discriminatory practices, and also dissented in Korematsu v. United States (1944), when the court upheld the legality of Japanese internment camps. However, he was also the sole dissenter in 1944’s case of Smith v. Allwright, where the court overruled a Texas law allowing the Democratic Party to hold primary elections for whites only; this decision actually overruled an opinion that Roberts had written nine years earlier.
Roberts is also known for heading up the two “Roberts Commissions” in the 1940s, both of which were appointed directly by President Roosevelt.
The first commission was a fact-finding delegation investigating the events around the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Serving with several military personnel (Adm. William H. Standley, Adm. Joseph M. Reeves, Gen. Frank R. McCoy and Gen. Joseph T. McNarney), he found that the base’s commanders, Adm. Husband Kimmel and Gen. Walter Short, were guilty of errors in judgment and dereliction of duty. It should be noted that Roberts was a fierce advocate for entering World War II even before the attack.
The second Roberts Commission, which existed between 1943 and 1946, was more formally known as the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas. Tasked with protecting cultural artifacts from the violence of World War II, it worked with the military’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program to protect and inventory works that had been stolen by the Nazis.
Later Years and Retirement
By 1944, Roberts was the only justice who had not been appointed by President Roosevelt, save for Harlan Fiske Stone, whom Roosevelt had promoted to Chief Justice; he was also the only Republican appointee still on the court. He began to chafe bitterly against what he saw as the court’s judicial activism, as in the above-mentioned case of Smith v. Allwright. He was particularly annoyed by their willingness to turn aside precedent (his own or others), noting in that dissent that the Stone court “tends to bring adjudications of this tribunal into the same class as a restricted railroad ticket, good for this day and train only.”
Roberts retired in 1945, at which point his relationship with colleagues was so bad that they could not agree on the wording of the customary letter acknowledging his services. He also left far fewer records behind than most Supreme Court justices, having burnt many of his legal papers.
After his retirement, Roberts worked with New Hampshire Governor Robert P. Bass on the Dublin Declaration, an attempt to remodel the United Nations to include member nations’ legislatures and turn it into a more substantial world government. In 1946 he was the first layperson to be elected as President of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies for the General Convention.
On May 17, 1955, after a four-month-long illness, Roberts died at his farm, the Strickland-Roberts Homestead, in Chester County, Pennsylvania. The Germantown Academy debate club and a Pottstown school district were named in his honor.