Owen J. Roberts, US Supreme Ct.

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Owen Josephus Roberts

Birthdate: (80)
Death: Died
Place of Burial: Chester County, Pennsylvania, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Josephus Roberts and Emma E. Roberts
Husband of Elizabeth Roberts

Managed by: Michael M.van Beuren ©
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Owen J. Roberts, US Supreme Ct.

Supreme Court Justice.

  • (from wikipedia)

"an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court for fifteen years. He also led two Roberts Commissions, the first that investigated the attack on Pearl Harbor and the second that focused on works of cultural value during the war. At the time of World War II, he was the only Republican appointed Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States and one of only three justices to vote against Franklin D. Roosevelt's orders for Japanese American internment camps in Korematsu v. United States."

"Owen J. Roberts and his wife Elizabeth Caldwell Rogers are both buried at St. Andrews, West Vincent Twp. Chester County, PA....An article in the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area newsletter dated Sept.1997 mentions that "forbears of former Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts were buried in the cemetery of the Central Lutheran Church" at Main & Church Streets, Phoenixville. The cemetery existed until 1923, but the list at the Society is apparently not complete. " from ancestry.com


Owen Josephus Roberts (May 2, 1875 – May 17, 1955) was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court for fifteen years. He also led the fact-finding commission that investigated the attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time of World War II, he was the only Republican appointed Judge on the Supreme Court of the United States and one of only three to vote against Franklin D. Roosevelt's orders for Japanese American internment camps in Korematsu v. United States.

Early life and career

Roberts was born in Philadelphia and attended Germantown Academy and the University of Pennsylvania, where he was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society and was the editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. He completed his bachelor's degree in 1895 and went on to graduate at the top of his class from University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1898.

He first gained notice as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. He was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge to investigate oil reserve scandals, known as the Teapot Dome scandal. This led to the prosecution and conviction of Albert B. Fall, the former Secretary of the Interior, for bribe-taking.

Supreme Court

Roberts was appointed to the Supreme Court by Herbert Hoover after Hoover's nomination of John J. Parker was defeated by the Senate.

On the Court, Roberts was a swing vote between those, led by Justices Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, and Harlan Fiske Stone, as well as Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who would allow a broader interpretation of the Commerce Clause to allow Congress to pass New Deal legislation that would provide for a more active federal role in the national economy, and the Four Horsemen (Justices James Clark McReynolds, Pierce Butler, George Sutherland, and Willis Van Devanter) who favored a narrower interpretation of the Commerce Clause and believed that the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause protected a strong "liberty of contract."

In 1936's United States v. Butler, Roberts sided with the Four Horsemen and wrote an opinion striking down the Agricultural Adjustment Act as beyond Congress's Commerce powers.

"Switch in Time that Saved the Nine"

Roberts switched his position on the constitutionality of the New Deal in late 1936, and the Supreme Court handed down West Coast Hotel v. Parrish in 1937, upholding the constitutionality of minimum wage laws. Subsequently, the Court would vote to uphold all New Deal programs. Since President Roosevelt's plan to appoint several new justices as part of his "Court-packing" plan of 1937 coincided with the Court's favorable decision in Parrish, many people called Roberts's vote in that case the "switch in time that saved nine," although Roberts's vote in Parrish occurred several months before announcement of the Court-packing plan. While Roberts is often accused of inconsistency in his jurisprudential stance towards the New Deal, legal scholars note that he had previously argued for a broad interpretation of government power in the 1934 case of Nebbia v. New York, and so his later vote in Parrish was not a complete reversal.

Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the landmark case of New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co., 303 U.S. 552 (1938), which safeguarded the right to boycott in the context of the struggle by African Americans against discriminatory hiring practices. He also wrote the majority opinion sustaining provisions of the second Agricultural Adjustment Act applied to the marketing of tobacco in Mulford v. Smith, 307 U.S. 38 (1939).

Roberts was appointed by Roosevelt to head the commission investigating the attack on Pearl Harbor; his report was published in 1942 and was highly critical of the United States Military. Journalist John T. Flynn wrote at the time that Roosevelt's appointment of Roberts:

"was a master stroke. What the public overlooked was that Roberts had been one of the most clamorous among those screaming for an open declaration of war. He had doffed his robes, taken to the platform in his frantic apprehensions and demanded that we immediately unite with Great Britain in a single nation. The Pearl Harbor incident had given him what he had been yelling for – America's entrance into the war. On the war issue he was one of the President's most impressive allies. Now he had his wish. He could be depended on not to cast any stain upon it in its infancy."

Perhaps influenced by his work on the Pearl Harbor commission, Roberts dissented from the Court's decision upholding internment of Japanese-Americans along the West Coast in 1944's Korematsu v. United States.

In his later years on the bench, Roberts was the only Justice on the Supreme Court not appointed (or in the case of Stone, who had become Chief Justice, promoted) by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roberts became frustrated with the willingness of the new justices to overturn precedent and with what he saw as their result-oriented liberalism as judges. Roberts dissented bitterly in the 1944 case of Smith v. Allwright, which in finding the white primary unconstitutional overruled an opinion Roberts himself had written nine years previously. It was in his dissent in that case that he coined the oft-quoted phrase that the frequent overruling of decisions "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 from the Court the following year, in 1945; Roberts's relations with his colleagues had become so strained that fellow Justice Hugo Black refused to sign the customary letter acknowledging Roberts's service on his retirement. Other justices refused to sign a modified letter that would have been acceptable to Black, and in the end, no letter was ever sent.

Shortly after leaving the Court, Roberts reportedly burned all of his legal and judicial papers. As a result, there is no significant collection of Roberts' manuscript papers, as there is for most other modern Justices. Roberts did prepare a short memorandum discussing his alleged change of stance around the time of the court-packing effort, which he left in the hands of Justice Felix Frankfurter.

Later life

While in retirement Roberts, along with Robert P. Bass, convened the Dublin Declaration, a plan to change the U.N. General Assembly into a world legislature with "limited but definite and adequate power for the prevention of war."

Roberts served as the Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School from 1948 to 1951.

He died at his Chester County (Pennsylvania) farm after a four-month illness. He was survived by his wife, Elizabeth Caldwell Rogers, and daughter, Elizabeth Hamilton.

Germantown Academy named its debate society after Owen J. Roberts in his honor. In addition, a school district near Pottstown, Pennsylvania, the Owen J. Roberts School District, adopted his name.

In 1946 he was the first lay person elected to serve as President of the House of Deputies for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. He served for one convention.

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Owen J. Roberts, US Supreme Ct.'s Timeline

May 2, 1875
May 17, 1955
Age 80
Chester County, Pennsylvania, United States