Robert Houghwout Jackson (1892-1954) was an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg war trials.
Robert H. Jackson was born on Feb. 13, 1892, in Spring Creek, Pa. He spent a year at the Albany Law School, apprenticed with a local lawyer, and was admitted to the bar in 1913. He set up practice in Jamestown, N.Y.
A passionate Democrat, Jackson supported New York's governor Franklin Roosevelt. After Roosevelt's election to the U.S. presidency in 1932, Jackson went to Washington to serve as general counsel of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. After serving as assistant attorney general in charge of the Tax Division of the Department of Justice, and then as head of the Antitrust Division, he was named solicitor general in 1938. In 1940 he became attorney general and in 1941 took his oath as associate justice of the Supreme Court.
During Jackson's tenure one of the chief public issues was the role and power of the Supreme Court. In his book The Struggle for Judicial Supremacy (1941) Jackson castigated the Court's willingness to establish itself as a superlegislature over the decisions of the popularly elected Congress and president; he called for a more restrained role. With some notable exceptions, Jackson continued this argument throughout his years on the Court. In one of his first major opinions, in 1942, the Federal government was granted extremely broad powers of economic regulation under the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. Concerning the nation's economy, supremacy was placed firmly in the hands of Congress.
Devoted to civil liberties, Jackson worked to determine how the Court could protect unpopular minorities against persecution and oppression by inflamed majority rule. In 1943 he delivered an opinion for the Court upholding the constitutional right of Jehovah's Witnesses (a religious group) to refuse to salute the American flag. Toward the end of his life, however, he joined Justice Felix Frankfurter in thinking that the Court should play a relatively minor role in protecting civil liberties. In his posthumous The Supreme Court in the American System of Government (1955), Jackson attacked the civil libertarian views of his colleagues Hugo Black and William O. Douglas.
Justice Jackson left the Court for a year in 1945-1946 to serve as the chief United States prosecutor at the Nuremberg war trials in Germany. Two books by him came out of this experience: The Case against the Nazi War Criminals (1946) and The Nuremberg Case (1947). He died on Oct. 9, 1954, in Washington.
There is no scholarly biography of Jackson. Eugene C. Gerhart, America's Advocate: Robert H. Jackson (1958), is useful but biased in Jackson's favor. Dispassionate Justice: A Synthesis of the Judicial Opinions of Robert H. Jackson, edited by Glendon Schubert (1969), contains an interesting introduction. □