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Frankfurter, Felix

in: People

Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965) – Progressive, Adviser to Presidents and Associate Justice on the Supreme Court


Introduction: Felix Frankfurter was born in Vienna, Austria, on November 15, 1882. When he was twelve years old, his family emigrated to the United States and settled in New York City. Frankfurter was graduated from the College of the City of New York in 1902. After spending a year working for New York City’s Housing Department, Frankfurter attended Harvard Law School. Frankfurter graduated first in the class of 1906. Upon graduation, he took a position with a New York law firm, but within the year he was appointed an Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Felix Frankfurter
Felix Frankfurter
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID cph 3a37338

Career: In 1910, Frankfurter began four years of service in the War Department’s Bureau of Insular Affairs as a legal officer. In 1914, he accepted an appointment to the faculty of Harvard Law School. He returned to Washington in 1917 to become assistant to the Secretary of War. He later became Secretary and counsel to the President’s Mediation Commission and, subsequently, Chairman of the War Labor Policies Board.

After World War I he rejoined the Harvard Law School faculty where he remained until he was appointed to the Supreme Court. Frankfurter was a political progressive, and intensely interested in politics. During his time at Harvard, Frankfurter did not shy away from public affairs. From 1916-18, President Woodrow Wilson used Frankfurter to investigate a growing number of labor disputes and controversies. One of the most controversial cases of the 1920s was the criminal conviction of two Italian immigrants, Sacco and Vanzetti, on charges of murder. To its critics, including Frankfurter, the public’s fear that Sacco and Vanzetti were anarchists resulted in a trial that failed to meet the standards guaranteed by the Constitution to any criminally accused person. Frankfurter was often vilified as a “red” during this time, and some Harvard alumni demanded his firing from the law school. Frankfurter also occasionally made arguments before the Supreme Court in cases in which progressive ideals were at issue. Although Frankfurter wrote a number of scholarly works, he was better known as a contributor of essays and articles to the New Republic, a magazine founded by like-minded progressives.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated Frankfurter to the Supreme Court of the United States on January 20, 1939, and the Senate confirmed the appointment on January 30, 1939. Frankfurter was appointed to the seat held by Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo, a seat that had also been occupied by Justice Holmes. Frankfurter was only the third Jewish Justice appointed to the Supreme Court (following Cardozo and Brandeis), and was the first nominee of the Court to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. After twenty-three years of service, Frankfurter retired from the Supreme Court on August 28, 1962. He died on February 22, 1965, at the age of eighty-two.

References: The Supreme Court Historical Society 

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project. (2011). Felix Frankfurter (188201965) – Progressive, adviser to presidents and associate justice on the Supreme Court. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from