Warren County remembers its former U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Robert H. Jackson
Just 114 Americans have served on the U.S. Supreme Court since 1789.
One was born in Warren County.
His 127th birthday was this week.
And a Robert H. Jackson Center event, featuring a presentation from current Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Max Baer, highlighted the birthday celebration held Wednesday at the Warren County Courthouse.
Born in the family farmhouse in just east of Spring Creek on February 13, 1892, Robert Houghwout Jackson moved with the family to Chautauqua County at a young age. He’s best known for his service as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court Justice and prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.
“I can see William Penn and Justice Jackson trading places if but for their place in history,” Baer said, noting the two men hold “remarkably similar values (and) similar attributes.”
On a surface level, Baer said that Penn and Jackson were distant relatives so there “may be genetics at play in the greatness of the two.”
Baer shared the story of William Penn’s trial in 1670 where Penn was charged with an unlawful assembly for teaching his Quaker beliefs in the street.
“Penn is 25 years old,” he said. “By all accounts, he is brilliant (yet) very serious, never yields on a point.”
Calling him “obnoxiously obstinate,” Baer said Penn was “dedicated to the principles of his religion – Quakerism – (and) equality among all people.”
He linked Jackson’s opinion in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. At the heart of the case was a group of children in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to salute the flag and was sent home for not doing so and threatened with further consequences.
According to the Oyez Project, which tracks the work of the nation’s highest court, the decision held “that compelling public schoolchildren to salute the flag was unconstitutional. In an opinion written by Robert Houghwout Jackson, the Court found that the First Amendment cannot enforce a unanimity of opinion on any topic, and national symbols like the flag should not receive a level of deference that trumps constitutional protections. He argued that curtailing or eliminating dissent was an improper and ineffective way of generating unity.”
Baer said that the tradition of the Supreme Court is to announce decisions from the bench.
Jackson’s “opinion is a masterful defense of the freedom of speech,” Baer said, explaining that Jackson took and marked an unpublished “slip opinion” – pauses, words of emphasis, etc. – for presentation in an abridged format from the bench.
“He gets to the part of his opinion where he wants to say the individual has the right now to be coerced,” Baer said, “and I think unusually, on the top right of the slip opinion, (he) writes in hand ‘William Penn’s refusal to remove his hat in the presence of the king.'”
Baer said opinions at that time weren’t audio recorded but said he has “every reason to believe” that Jackson invoked the Penn case, “connecting the two of them” 350 years apart.
“I can see William Penn and Justice Jackson trading places if but for their place in history…. (the) vigor and righteousness by which they defend their positions.”
“The trial of William Penn established for the first time… the right to a fair impartial jury,” Baer said. “Robert Jackson took the same kind of heroic actions” at Nuremberg and “demanded these… horrible war criminals be given full due process rights. (It) had to do with a high sense of what’s right and what’s (not) just as it was with William Penn.”
Shifting ahead over 100 years, Baer shared the story of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall’s ruling in Marbury v. Madison – the landmark ruling that created the principle of judicial review.
“Justice Jackson has written to this,” Baer said, noting Jackson was “very interested in the question of judiciary recusing when he had an interest,” citing a 1943 interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Baer concluded by noting the significance of individuals standing up “for the dispossessed, minorities, for what is right – as William Penn did to his great inconvenience, Jackson at Nuremberg and Supreme Court, Marshall when took on presidential and legislative and said no this is judiciary’s role.”