Books, documentaries and letters can help us to get to know people who did great things.
In the case of Robert Jackson, "great things" mean being the first person to serve as U.S. Solicitor General, Attorney General and Supreme Court justice, as well as serving as the chief prosecutor for the U.S. at the Nuremberg Trials, tribunals established to prosecute Nazi war criminals after World War II.
But listening to people who worked and lived with Jackson can tell us so much more.
Times Observer photo by Josh Cotton
An intimate view
From left, Chief Prosecutor for the Special Court of Sierra Leone David Crane, Robert Jackson biographer John Q. Barrett, former Jackson law clerk E. Barrett Prettyman, Jackson’s grandson Thomas Loftus and Jackson Center founder Greg Peterson participate in a panel discussion at the Struthers Library Theatre on Friday night in advance of the debut showing of ‘Liberty Under Law,’ the first feature-length film on Jackson’s life.
That was the case for the several hundred people at the Struthers Library Theatre in downtown Warren for the debut of 'Liberty Under Law,' the first feature documentary on the life of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson. Before the showing, a panel discussion was held; it included Jackson biographer John Q. Barrett, Jackson's last law clerk E. Barrett Prettyman as well as Jackson's grandson, Thomas Loftus.
"He was my hero," Loftus said of his grandfather. He described a man in Jackson who was "challenged" in balancing the demands of his professional career with his personal life.
Prettyman echoed that fundamental struggle, noting that Jackson did not want people getting too close to him and genuinely getting to know him. Prettyman told the audience that he wasn't sure if Jackson actually liked him until he asked him back for a second term as his law clerk.
"He was kind of a divided person," Prettyman said, explaining that if Jackson had been in the theatre he would appear affable "but actually you didn't know Robert Jackson at all because he didn't want anyone to know himdidn't want people pushing into him."
He was also highly dedicated to his work.
One of the most significant cases that came before the Supreme Court while Jackson served was Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, a case that confronted the constitutionality of racially segregated schools.
The court determined that racially segregated schools were not "separate but equal." During the two years the case was before the court, Jackson had a severe heart attack. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren took a draft of the court's opinion to the hospital to review with Jackson.
Emphasizing a need to show solidarity in court's decision, Jackson went straight from a seven-week hospitalization to the bench to be present in the courtroom for the reading of the opinion. "I looked at him and knew he shouldn't be there," Prettyman said. "But he was there."
Jackson's doctors were telling him that he needed to limit his activity, potentially retire from the court. He would have none of it.
"He was a very practical man," Prettyman noted. "He knew the time had come," explaining that Jackson claimed "he had a good run" in life and wasn't going to slow down. He would live just five months after the decision was given.
Prettyman made special mention that Jackson had a "remarkable knack for using the sentence" to make a point. "He was just a beautiful writer."
The 90-minute film, which made its debut after the panel discussion, incorporated footage and photographs from Spring Creek at the Jackson family farm, where he was born on Feb. 13, 1892, and featured interviews with many of the individuals featured on the panel.
Painting Jackson as an "advocate and protector of the common man," the film explored the major contributions of Jackson's life, highlighting that he came from humble beginnings, never spent one day in college, and never technically graduated from law school, but was still able to advance to the highest level of his profession.
He was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's most trusted legal adviser and his faith in the law remained steady, citing "faith in the law as our last best hope."
The legacy of Jackson's life and accomplishments have lived on.
David Crane, former chief prosecutor at the Special Court of Sierra Leone, said that it is a "rare privilege for an attorney to become chief prosecutor of an international court." Working in a court where "an entire nation and region" are watching, Crane said, when he approached the bench to give his opening statement, he "felt the spirit of Robert Jackson with me."