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Owen J. Roberts

Owen J. RobertsOwen Josephus Roberts was born in Philadelphia on May 2, 1875.  Prior to becoming a nationally recognized figure, Roberts established a reputation in Philadelphia as a favorite law professor and a superb advocate.  Upon his graduation from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1898, with highest honors, Roberts was appointed a teaching fellow at the law school.  He was named a professor of law in 1907, a post he held until 1919.  Over the course of his twenty years of teaching, Roberts also maintained an active private practice, served as the first assistant District Attorney of Philadelphia, and founded the law firm now known as Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP.

In 1918 Roberts accepted his first national position, when he was appointed Special Assistant United States Attorney to prosecute espionage cases in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  In 1924, Roberts again heeded the call of the United States Attorney General, and, along with former Senator Atlee Pomerene, was named Special Counsel for the United States to investigate and prosecute illegal actions in connection with Navy oil leases at Elk Horn, California and Teapot Dome, Wyoming (the infamous “Teapot Dome” scandal). The Teapot Dome scandal was the most notorious national political scandal before Watergate.  Roberts was not one to shy away from a difficult task, and his meticulousness and tireless efforts revealed a complex scheme of bribery and favoritism at the highest levels of government.

Roberts’ national reputation was solidified during his investigation of the Teapot Dome scandal, and in 1930 he was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Hoover.  He assumed the bench during one of its most tumultuous periods, when a Nineteenth Century understanding of economic liberty was running head-on into the Twentieth Century reality of the Great Depression and the need for government regulation of the economy.  Roberts recognized this clash, and in his most famous judicial act, he joined four other justices inWest Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937), to uphold a state minimum wage law, thereby overruling Adkins v. Children’s’ Hospital, 261 U.S. 525 (1923), signaling the end of the Lochner Era.   Although it is not widely known, Roberts’ decision to overrule Adkins occurred before President Roosevelt’s “court-packing” scheme and was not the “switch in time” that many suggest.  Roberts’ vote in West Coast Hotel Co. was one of the most significant legal decisions of the Twentieth Century and provided the underpinning for the government’s ability to regulate commerce to the extent that most take for granted today.

Roberts was also committed to preserving individual liberty.  He authored the Court’s opinion in Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940), an important decision affirming the right to religious liberty as guaranteed against violation by the states under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  And he authored a powerful dissent in Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944), the Japanese exclusion case.  His commitment to the ideals of liberty and justice was not softened by the fact that he had often assumed the role of prosecutor in his career.  While on the bench, he authored a concurrence in the case of Sorrells v. United States, 287 U.S. 435 (1932) which included powerful language decrying entrapment as a “prostitution of the criminal law.”

When an investigation was called for into the state of the Nation’s preparedness to meet the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roberts’ name was proposed by Secretary of War Stimson as the best person to serve as chair of the commission, and President Roosevelt accepted the nomination.  Roberts’ reputation for conducting a fearless and thorough investigation, gained during his prosecutions in the Teapot Dome scandal, ensured that the commission’s conclusions would be accepted in that politically and emotionally charged investigation.

He later served as Chair of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, created to help the U.S. Army protect works of cultural value in Allied-occupied areas of Europe, and to develop inventories of Nazi-appropriated property.

Roberts was appointed by President Truman to review draft violations and wartime courts-martial.

Upon his retirement from the Court, Roberts again returned to academia, as $1-a-year Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he taught a seminar on constitutional law.

Roberts was a person of diverse interests, including:

  • He was a member and served as president of the American Philosophical Society.
  • He had an abiding interest in the Boy Scouts of America, serving for many years on its highest governing body.
  • He served as chairman of the Committee of Instruction of Girard College.
  • He was an internationalist, serving as president of the Atlantic Union Committee for a Federal Convention of Democracies.
  • After he left the Court he served on the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution.
  • He served as chairman of the board of the Ford Foundation for the Advancement of Education.
  • In 1946 he was the first layperson to be elected president of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church of the United States.
  • He was a life Trustee of the University of Pennsylvania.
  • He had a keen interest in race relations. In a 1939 address to Brown University alumni, after Brown had awarded him an honorary doctorate, he stated that “unreasoning hatred constituted the only menace to the foundations of this Country’s government. Race, color and political hatreds,” he said, “have no place in a government of reason, which ours should be.”
  • He became a member of the Board of Trustees of Lincoln University, a predominantly black institution, in June 1929. He resigned upon his appointment to the Supreme Court, but was reelected to Lincoln’s Board of Trustees in February 1948, serving thereafter until his death in 1955. As a Lincoln Trustee Roberts especially favored acceptance by Lincoln of a special responsibility for the training of leaders for Africa.
  • He had a great interest in higher education for persons of color, heading the local effort in support of the United Negro College Fund in 1947 and 1948.
  • In 1946 he chaired the National Mental Health Foundation.

In 1929 Roberts and his wife bought a 700 acre farm in Birchrunville, Chester County, near where his Welsh forebears had settled.  They named the farm Bryn Coed, meaning Wooded Hill.  The residents of the Northern Chester County area that encompassed Bryn Coed chose to name their public school district in Roberts’ honor.

Roberts died at Bryn Coed on May 17, 1955.