Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 3, 2016

Abe Fortas – As I know him

Abraham “Abe” Fortas

This profile of the Hon. Abe Fortas, former associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was written by Jac Chambliss and published in the Hamilton County Herald Friday, June 10, 1966. That week, the Herald published a special edition covering the Tennessee Bar Association Convention in Chattanooga. The Tennessee Judiciary Conference also met in Chattanooga that week. The Hon. Fortas was to speak at the conference, but was held up in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Alma. This article will be of interest to family, friends, and associates of Chambliss, as it contains details of his early life and his life-long friendship with the Hon. Fortas.

Abe Fortas was a rather small, dark-haired, and dark-eyed boy when I first met him, even though he was already a senior in college. Perhaps he seemed even smaller than he really was because he so frequently wore knickerbockers.

It was at Southwestern College in Memphis, and the year was 1929. He and I were the same age – 19.

Even then, though, there was something giant-size about Abe.

First, he was a brilliant student. I belonged to a literary fraternity with him – I believe it was called The Scarab Club.

Second, he was a musician of considerable attainment. He played the violin, as I recall. I was playing the tenor banjo and the tenor guitar at the time, rather haphazardly, and I admired his musicianship greatly.

Third, and most important, he was possessed of very definite leadership talent. He was quite keen but amiable and friendly – a somewhat unusual combination. Most clever people are cutting, and sarcastic, but not Abe.

The Fortas family was not wealthy – who was, during those desperately lean first years of the Depression? But Abe, after graduating with honors at Southwestern, went on to Law School at Yale. There, his record was again one of brilliance. One of his professors at Yale was William O. Douglas – and when Douglas left Yale to go with the New Deal in the mid ‘30s, he brought Abe along to Washington.

Within the matter of a few years, I learned – with no surprise – that Abe had become Under Secretary of the Interior.

On one occasion in the early ‘40s, I went to visit him. He was in a huge, posh office, surrounded by aides and secretaries, but was still the quiet, keen-eyed person I had known, friendly and gentle in his manner.

When the war came, he insisted on entering the Army. His boss, the Secretary of the Interior, was reluctant to let him go, but go he did. However, he was soon advised he would have to be released because of some physical impairment he regarded as being of no consequence. He protested, to no avail, and back he went to Washington.

After World War II, he formed a law partnership with Thurmond Arnold, and this firm continued until his appointment to the Supreme Court last year.

During his legal career, Abe handled many, many important and complex cases, always with skill and integrity. One of the most famous was the Gideon case, in which the Supreme Court set up new standards for the defense of the indigent and economically helpless who are charged with crimes.

Abe’s elevation to the Supreme Court meant many things. It meant leaving the excitement, the competition, and the intellectual and moral challenge of his private practice.

It also meant, though, reunion with his old teacher, Justice William O. Douglas, and a new and exciting life of difficult decisions.

But most of all, it meant fulfillment of the basic American Dream: a boy who was capable, hard working, articulate, and good fought his way from down under to achieve one of the highest positions in the world today.

Being on the Supreme Court is not an easy assignment. That Court gets no cases except the ones which are difficult and agonizing. As we have seen in recent years, the power of that Court is so great as to be frightening – especially ... to those who are on the Court.

But for what purpose is a man given his life? I believe, and I believe you agree, that one’s life is given to be spent as fully and completely and productively as possible.

And on the basis of this standard, we can be proud of Abe Fortas.