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.

 

Memphis Bar Association Highlights 50th Anniversary of Gideon, Public Defense in Shelby County

Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender lobby
Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender

Next week will mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark decision that established the right to counsel for all Americans facing incarceration, regardless of their ability to pay.

In 1963, Memphian Abe Fortas was part of the legal team that successfully argued Gideon vs Wainwright before the U.S. Supreme Court.  That decision held that the 6th Amendment provided the right to appointed counsel in state felony cases. The Court added that counsel for indigent defendents is an essential element of a “fair trial” and argued that states are responsible for meeting this mandate through the Fourteenth Amendment.

This decision would eventually be extended to anyone facing deprivation of liberty.

This is the charge of the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender and all systems like it across the country.  But 50 years after Gideon, has this promise of effective counsel for all been met?

Read our cover story in the most recent edition of the Memphis Bar Association magazine, Memphis Lawyer.  You can read this article and the full issue of Memphis Lawyer here.

Or you can read a PDF version of our article below. Try it in Fullscreen mode!

Digital Pull-Out from Memphis Lawyer magazine