The Justice Giant Memphis Forgot

A Rhodes College professor believes it’s time to reclaim U.S. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas

 

“What does it mean to say a person is a product of a place — to say that Memphis helped to make Justice Fortas?”

 

Explore Downtown Memphis, statues of W. C. Handy, B.B. King and Elvis are reminders of the musical talent seemingly etched into the DNA of this city. Read an article about Memphians who made history — you’ll see the names of FedEx’s Fred Smith, Holiday Inn’s Kemmons Wilson, the South’s first black millionaire, Robert Church and Piggly Wiggly’s Clarence Saunders.

Yet the Memphian who won the case that created public defense systems across the U.S., revolutionized juvenile justice, made the cover of Time Magazine and wrote much of the legislation that built President LBJ’s Great Society, in addition to the legislation that established the U.N. and the Kennedy Center — is but a footnote in Bluff City history.

Born to Jewish immigrants in South Memphis, Abe Fortas became one of the most powerful voices in our country. Yet his fall from grace was fast and stunning, so complicating his legacy that even his hometown barely acknowledges his roots.

Now, more than 50 years after his most famous courtroom victory, a Rhodes College professor has published an article that challenges history…. and Memphis… to give the legacy of Abe Fortas another look.

“Scholars have largely ignored Fortas’s early life – they’ve skipped straight to Yale Law School and the New Deal in their discussions of the forces that shaped him,” said Timothy Huebner. “But Memphis played an important part, too. ”

Cover: Journal of Supreme Court History, 2017 Vol.42, No. 3

“Ever since I learned that Fortas graduated from Southwestern (now Rhodes College) I have been interested in writing about him,” said Huebner. “As a historian of the Supreme Court and a Rhodes professor, I felt like I had a personal connection to him.

Huebner is the Sternberg Professor of History at Rhodes College, where he has taught the history of the American South and U.S. Constitutional History for the past twenty-two years. He is the author of Liberty and Union: The Civil War Era and American Constitutionalism (2016). His piece on Fortas was published in November.

Prof. Timothy S. Huebner, Rhodes College

“Abe Fortas was shaped by the racial and economic inequity that marked early 20th Century Memphis, as well as his liberal arts education. His Memphis experiences and college education instilled in him a unique dedication to the rights of poor and marginalized people.”

With permission from the author and The Journal of Supreme Court History, we share the article: “Memphis and the Making of Justice Fortas.”

 

 

 

 

University of Memphis Law School Launches New Magazine, Features Public Defense

Alumni magazines are often just that – magazines only alumni would read. The University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphrey’s School of Law set out to do something more.

Screenshot 2014-05-19 10.49.00This week, the school launched its new publication, Memphis Law (ML).  Dean Peter Letsou says the goal of the school’s new publication is to communicate with alumni, students, lawyers and other supporters.  But Letsou and his staff  had one more mission — to produce stories about the law that appeal to readers beyond the legal community.

The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office is proud to have produced the cover story for the launch of ML.

That’s the story of Abe Fortas, the native Memphian who argued the landmark Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), which established the right to counsel for all people facing incarceration, regardless of ability to pay, and spawned public defense systems across the country. Later, as a Supreme Court Justice, Fortas wrote the majority opinions in Kent v. United States (1966), which extended due process rights to children and In re Gault (1967), which provided children similar constitutional protections as adults.

Despite these and a remarkable list of other accomplishments, Fortas is but a footnote in Memphis history. You can read about his astounding rise to power and stunning fall from grace and find out why some believe it’s time to revisit Fortas’ place in Memphis history.

We also contributed an article about what the right to counsel looks like in Memphis, 50 years after the Gideon v. Wainwright decision. While that 1963 decision sparked a flurry of change in the criminal justice system, the resources to defend against three decades of tough-on-crime justice policies have not kept up. There is, however, a glimmer of hope that our country and community are rounding a corner in criminal justice reform.

You can read these articles and many more  stories in the online edition of ML.

 

Supreme Court Decision Authored by Memphis Native Still Challenging Juvenile Courts 47 Years Later

It was 47 years ago this month that a Memphis native authored a Supreme Court opinion that would alter the course of juvenile justice in the U.S.
SCOTUS_Justice_Abe_Fortas
Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas

On May 15th, 1967, Memphian and Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas  wrote the majority opinion for the In re Gault decision, which held that children were “persons” under the U.S. Constitution and should be treated fairly when faced with deprivation of liberty.

Specifically, it established the due process rights of children — that they have a right to counsel and were entitled to notice of charges against them and to confront and cross examine accusers.  The decision also firmly stated that children have a right against self-incrimination. In other words, it provided children the same due process rights as adults.

Fortas and the court sided with a 15 year-old Arizona boy named Gerald Gault who had been sentenced to six years in reform school … for a prank phone call. It was not just the outrageous outcome of this case, however, that eventually brought the Gault case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967; It was the entire legal process that led to the sentence:

  • Gault was removed from his home by law enforcement without notification to his parents.
  • Gault’s accuser was not present at the hearing.
  • No record was kept of the proceeding and no witnesses were sworn in before testimony.
  • Gault was never advised of his rights and no attorney was present.

At the time, the maximum sentence in Arizona for an adult accused of the same crime —  a $50 fine and two months in jail. Much less than the six years Gault was given.

Gault’s parents filed a petition for his release, which eventually reached the Supreme Court.

On the anniversary of a court decision made more than four decades earlier, it is ironic that the the Department of Justice would currently be in the process of enforcing this opinion in Memphis — an opinion authored by a Memphis native. In its 2012 investigation of the Shelby County Juvenile Court, the DOJ repeatedly cited Gault to support charges that essential rights had not been extended to children in Memphis and Shelby County.

“More than 40 years ago, the Supreme Court established the parameters of due process for children facing delinquency proceedings and thereby subject to the ‘awesome prospect of incarceration.’ In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 36 (1967). The Court held that children must be afforded the right to counsel, the right to notice of the charges, the right to be free from self-incrimination, and the right to confront witnesses

“During our investigation, we found pre-Gault era practices in JCMSC [Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County] that violate the due process rights of children facing delinquency proceedings. These practices violate the children’s civil rights.”

Investigation of the Shelby County Juvenile Court, U.S. Department of Justice Civil Right Division, April 26, 2012.

At the start of this year, the Shelby County Public Defender’s new Juvenile Defender Unit began taking cases in juvenile court. This marked the first time in more than 30 years that the Public Defender’s Office has been formally involved in Juvenile Court. You can read more about the immersive training the Juvenile Defender Unit and some private attorneys are undergoing to learn the latest practices in this highly specialized area of law:

Juvenile Defenders Gather in Memphis, Train to Fight Transfers

Tennessee Lawyers Learn Latest National Juvenile Defense Practices in Memphis

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Revisiting Fortas

You can also learn more about the role Memphis native Abe Fortas played in developing new standards for the defense of children and adults in this inaugural edition of Memphis Law, a new magazine published by the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. Our office wrote the cover story about Fortas’ contributions to the right to counsel in our country. We also wrote an article about the state of public defense in Memphis,today. If you’re an alumni or supporter, the magazine will be delivered to your home. Or you can check out the issue online: ‘Memphis Law’ Inaugural Issue