The rancorous 2016 presidential election concluded on November 8th with Republican Donald J. Trump’s dramatic upset victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton. Voters went to the polls to choose the nation’s next leader, and by doing so entrusted the next president with the power to shape the composition of the Supreme Court for a generation. President-elect Trump will now have the opportunity to nominate a replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia, whose death earlier this year created a vacancy that remains unfilled despite President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland. On the campaign trail and the debate stage both Clinton and Trump spoke to the kind of justices they would appoint to the court. It served as a reminder of the Supreme Court’s political nature and the central role that the justices who compose it play in forming a more perfect Union.
The passing of a former Supreme Court law clerk four days before the election affords us a chance to pull back the granite curtain on the court’s inner workings during an earlier period of intense division within American society. E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr., who died on November 4, 2016 after a long career of public service and a successful private practice, clerked for the Court in the mid-1950s when it handed down its momentous decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The unanimous decision in that case overturned the “separate but equal” racial segregation precedent established in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) by declaring that segregation in public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The landmark case was a crucial moment in the early Civil Rights Movement, a period in which Americans of every creed and color contested the fundamental meanings of liberty, equality, and citizenship in the republic.
In 1986, Prettyman donated a large portion of his legal papers to the Arthur J. Morris Law Library. They offer valuable insights into the Court’s internal deliberations over Brown v. Board of Education and other prominent cases in the period. Equally important, they put a human face on some of the Court’s black-robed personalities and illuminate the special bond that clerks formed with their justices as they together interpreted and refined American law.
Prettyman, Jr. was a 1949 Yale University graduate and the son of Judge E. Barrett Prettyman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The younger Prettyman completed his law degree in 1953 at the University of Virginia School of Law. During his time at UVA he was a member of the Student Legal Forum, an organization newly created to bring prominent legal minds to Grounds. In 1951, Prettyman, no doubt benefiting from his father’s position on the appellate court, arranged for Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson to speak on Grounds. Two years later Justice Jackson hired Prettyman to serve as one of his law clerks at a salary of $5,175.50. His performance warranted a nearly $1,000 raise the following year, but he joined Justice John M. Harlan in November 1954 after Justice Jackson suffered a fatal heart attack. Prettyman served Justice Felix Frankfurter during this period as well.
Becoming Justice Jackson’s law clerk in 1953 thrust Prettymen into the Court’s deliberations over Brown v. Board of Education. The justices first heard arguments in the consolidated case the previous December and ordered re-arguments for the fall of 1953. Some of the justices, particularly Frankfurter, hoped that in the interim Congress would outlaw public school segregation and thus avoid the need for judicial intervention. Justice Stanley F. Reed preferred that the states end segregation on their own terms. Despite their collective misgivings many of the justices were at least open to the idea of striking down the Plessy doctrine. Others required more convincing. The proponents for overturning the “separate but equal” precedent feared that an opinion issued by a divided court risked undermining the legitimacy of the ruling. Dissenting opinions could lend a measure of credence to the belief that segregation was constitutionally sound and bolster advocates for segregation in state and local communities.
While Frankfurter did not get his wish for congressional intervention, the death of Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson in September 1953 changed the Court’s dynamics in unexpected ways. The Kentuckian’s fellow justices believed that he would vote to uphold Plessy on the basis of well-established judicial precedent. Vinson’s demise was for Frankfurter “the first indication I have ever had that there is a God.” It brought a new chief justice to the Court in the form of California Governor Earl Warren and the potential for a unanimous decision in Brown’s favor.
After the Court reheard arguments in December 1953 the new chief famously worked to persuade his colleagues, including Justice Reed, that overturning Plessy was both a legal and moral imperative. The Court would issue a unanimous decision to strike down the separate but equal doctrine. The question then became whether the justices would release a single opinion or deliver multiple concurring statements.
For a number of months Justice Jackson considered authoring a separate opinion. He believed that Plessy should be undone, although he struggled to find a satisfactory legal theory to support his position. His draft opinion well reflected this difficulty in its conclusion that the “mere possession of colored blood, in whole or in part, no longer affords a reasonable basis for a classification for educational purposes and that each individual must be rated on his own merit.” In other words, instead of identifying a precise point of law with which segregation conflicted, Justice Jackson’s opinion rested on the assumption that segregation was no longer legally defensible. Even then the main thesis occupied very little space in his draft document. The opinion itself meandered through an exploration of southern culture and African–American advancement in post-Civil War America to the legislative history of the 5th and 14th Amendments and their respective Due Process Clauses, the problem of enforcing the Court’s order, and the acceptance of segregation’s constitutionality in American history. Only then did Justice Jackson weakly assert that segregation no longer had a legal basis.
The Justice gave his draft opinion to Prettyman for his evaluation. The young lawyer immediately recognized its unfocused nature. Indeed, as Prettyman pointed out to Justice Jackson in a lengthy critique, the legal reasoning to strike down Plessy was stated “in only two out of 23 pages” and was “almost an afterthought.” Prettyman was blunt with his mentor: The document had an “apologetic” tone as if “you were ashamed to reach” its conclusion. Delivering a sheepish concurring opinion, he argued, would undermine the Court’s authority because “Some one must make these decisions, and under our system the burden is on the courts.” An opinion should be confidently argued and forcefully given to retain the public’s confidence in the Court’s decision. Whatever conclusions the majority or individual justices reached, the public needed to feel that “it is a decision based upon law” and not the wishes of “a bunch of liberals in Washington” foisting their views on the masses.
Prettyman believed that Justice Jackson’s draft opinion appeared weak and apologetic in part because the Justice could not say with precision how he knew that sufficient racial equality had been achieved or when it had happened. Both Justice Jackson’s draft opinion and Prettyman’s memorandum traded in contemporary ideas of racial inferiority and uplift that informed sociological and intellectual attitudes about African Americans in the mid-twentieth century. Prettyman suggested that the Justice restructure his opinion by moving his conclusion to the beginning and justifying it through an exploration of the expansion of public education in the United States. He pointed to the Justice’s underlying theme that “public education is no longer for the privileged few” and that as America had “adopted [Thomas] Jefferson’s great dream” of a broadly educated public, “mass education, for all people, is simply an established fact in this country today.” Repackaging his discussion about black social and intellectual advancement since Emancipation would then allow the Justice to counter pro-segregation arguments based on assertions of racial inequality and in turn argue that “the races are no longer sufficiently unequal or distinct to warrant” separate but equal policies.
Justice Jackson ultimately decided not to issue a concurring opinion. A combination of his initial heart attack in March 1954, his own inability to develop a sound legal theory, and Chief Justice Warren’s desire for a unified statement prevented him from finishing the work. In a memo from December 1954, Prettyman recorded that Justice Jackson was about to begin refining his opinion based on his clerk’s critique when he became ill. Nevertheless, one morning, following a visit from Chief Justice Warren to his hospital room, Justice Jackson asked Prettyman to write a concise paragraph based on his evaluation. The Chief Justice was due back in the afternoon and Justice Jackson believed that Warren’s own draft opinion “could use a little more law.” While the paragraph is not among Prettyman’s papers in the UVA Law Library, Prettyman’s memo suggests that he delivered to Justice Jackson language that declared an end to legal segregation in general, and not just in public education. The two justices discussed Prettyman’s paragraph (with Jackson giving the Chief Justice an oral summary of it) before deciding that the Court’s final opinion should remain focused just on segregation in public education. The Court, with Justice Jackson in attendance despite his recent heart attack, announced its decision on May 17, 1954.
Prettyman’s critical reading of Justice Jackson’s draft opinion demonstrates the trust that Supreme Court justices place in their law clerks to assist them in their duties. Justice Jackson and his colleagues well understood that Brown v. Board of Education was one of the most important cases ever to come before the Court. Their historical awareness of the moment added to the challenge they faced in crafting an opinion that overturned established doctrines rooted in social norms and law dating back well before Plessy v. Ferguson. Justice Jackson’s collaboration with Prettyman to meet that task helped him to see where he had fallen short in articulating the unconstitutionality of segregation even though he felt the practice should end. Prettyman and his fellow law clerks played crucial roles in this and other cases to help the Court “say what the law is.”
The bond between Prettyman and the justices he served extended far beyond their intellectual discussions about the law. Humorous exchanges at surprising moments hinted at the respect and even the friendship that they felt for one another. An exchange between Prettyman and Justices Frankfurter and Hugo Black illustrates this point. On April 20, 1955, the Court reheard oral arguments in the case of Ellis v. Dixon. The case pitted James R. Ellis, the president of the Yonkers Committee for Peace, against William Dixon and the members of the Board of Education of the City of Yonkers. The Committee wanted to use Yonkers public school buildings to hold a forum on peace and war, but the school board denied its request. The Committee claimed that the Yonkers school board had violated the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of its members.
Unfortunately for the Committee, its lawyers could not really say just how the Yonkers school board had violated their constitutional rights. They conceded that the school board had the power to deny use of its facilities to non-scholastic groups and claimed that the school board applied state and local regulations selectively, although they could not offer the Court a specific example.
Justice Frankfurter thought that the case was a big waste of time. He silently questioned why the Court had even agreed to take the case in the first place as he listened to the plaintiffs. Frankfurter, a man with a forceful, if not intimidating, personality, sent a note to Prettyman who was sitting in the audience. “Believe it or not,” he wrote, “but I am resolved not to say a word in his case! FF.” Prettyman played along. He returned the note with the reply, “I’ll give you 25¢, 6 jelly beans and a pat on the back if you keep your promise.” The “jelly beans” comment referred to a recent news story about Albert Einstein and his acceptance of candy or baked goods in exchange for helping young people with their math homework. Frankfurter didn’t miss a beat: “You must have read the Einstein story about ‘jelly beans.”
As the Yonkers Committee’s lawyer continued Justice Frankfurter grew more and more impatient. “Of all the baseless certs,” he again wrote to Prettyman, “this is it!!” Still, he did not ask any questions. Frankfurter explained his uncharacteristically quiet demeanor in a fourth note: “My silence is meant to be disdain and contempt. FF.” It did not last much longer. Chief Justice Warren asked the Committee’s lawyer a question at the conclusion of his oral argument that then turned into a discussion about filing further briefs. Frankfurter, perhaps fearing that even more of the Court’s time would be squandered, “almost exploded with a combination question and comment.” When Frankfurter had finished, Justice Black, aware of the bet, sent a note of his own to Prettyman. “Don’t let him off on a technicality,” he wrote, “that was a question.” Sensing that he may have lost the wager, Frankfurter quickly sent another note ruling that “my intervention was after the argument, on a point unrelated to the argument — and so, please 25¢, 6 jelly beans.”
Prettyman retreated to his office to type out a formal “opinion” that held Justice Frankfurter in violation of the agreement. He sent it to Frankfurter who was, as a reminder, still sitting on the bench hearing the case. The justice soon sent it back with his replies. Prettyman reiterated that Frankfurter had promised to remain silent during the lawyer’s oral argument and that the lawyer had not yet rested his case when Frankfurter spoke. “The ‘case’ is over,” Frankfurter replied, “in the sense in which the word ‘case’ was used in context.” That was to say, it wasn’t much of a case at all. To Prettyman’s observation that Justice Black had overruled him, Frankfurter responded that he “did not know [Black] had that power without four more.” Finally, Prettyman lamented that while Frankfurter laid claim to the money and jelly beans, he had said nothing about the pat on the back. “That’s a sad commentary on our friendship,” Prettyman ribbed. Frankfurter underlined “pat on the back” and exclaimed that “I’d rather have that than even 60 jelly beans!” His view of the case was vindicated when the Court ruled 5-4 that the writ of certiorari had been improvidently granted.
What the E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr. Papers at UVA’s Morris Law Library offer us is a rare view into the Supreme Court’s inner sanctum and the people who inhabited it at a critical turning point in American history. The Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education lent momentum to a growing Civil Rights Movement that transformed American society in profound ways. Prettyman’s files allow us to glimpse into the Court’s internal struggle to reach a decision and into Justice Jackson’s ultimately futile search for a legal theory to support his concurrence. They also reveal a more human side of the Court, one that shows the justices as capable of humor and warmth even as they sat on the bench hearing a case.
In January 2017, President-elect Trump will begin the process of reshaping the Supreme Court by appointing a new woman or man to fill Justice Scalia’s seat. If the recent election is any indication, the person whom Mr. Trump nominates will probably provoke passions on both sides of the political spectrum on his or her way through a contentious confirmation process. The Prettyman Papers can help scholars and the interested public look past the ideological walls often thrown up during a change in the Court’s structure to see the justices and those with whom they worked on their own terms as they grappled with important matters of law and society. Researchers wishing to consult this important collection may do so online or in person by contacting the Arthur J. Morris Law Library at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image: Justice Harlan at a 1965 reunion with his law clerks. Prettyman stands behind and to the right of Justice Harlan, center. From The Papers of E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr. 1944 – 1982.