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Owen Josephus Roberts

Owen Josephus Roberts served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court for fifteen years. His years on the Court included the NEW DEAL era when the federal government, under the leadership of President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, expanded its regulation of the economy in an effort to address the effects of the Great Depression. Roberts cast the deciding vote in a major case that marked a shift in the Court's approach to such regulation.

Roberts was born on May 2, 1875, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, where he spent much of his childhood. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, receiving a bachelor of arts degree in 1895 and a bachelor of laws degree in 1898. In 1898 Roberts established a law practice in Philadelphia, becoming the first district attorney for Philadelphia County. Roberts also taught for twenty years at the University of Pennsylvania, serving as a law professor from 1898 to 1918. In 1924 President CALVIN COOLIDGE named Roberts special attorney for the prosecution in the TEAPOT DOME SCANDAL, which involved unethical behavior in the oil industry. In 1930 President HERBERT HOOVER appointed Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court.


Roberts's tenure on the Supreme Court is largely remembered for the decisive fifth vote he cast in WEST COAST HOTEL V. PARRISH, 300 U.S. 379, 57 S. Ct. 578, 81 L. Ed. 703 (1937), which upheld the constitutionality of a Washington state MINIMUM WAGE law. The Court's decision in West Coast Hotel brought an end to the Lochner Era in CONSTITUTIONAL LAW, named after the case LOCHNER V. NEW YORK, 198 U.S. 45, 25 S. Ct. 539, 49 L. Ed. 937 (1905). In Lochner the Court struck down a New York law regulating the number of hours that employees could work each week in the baking industry because it violated the free market principles embodied in the doctrine of SUBSTANTIVE DUE PROCESS, a doctrine derived from the DUE PROCESS CLAUSE of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

For three decades after Lochner, the Court invalidated numerous state and federal laws regulating businesses, including laws that prescribed certain terms and conditions of employment. After West Coast Hotel, the Court adopted a more permissive stance toward such laws, permitting both the state and federal governments to pass reasonable business regulations that benefit society. Roberts's vote to uphold the state minimum wage law in West Coast Hotel is memorable not only because it was the decisive vote in a landmark case but also because he had previously voted to strike down similar regulations on a number of occasions.

Roberts's change of heart has been characterized as "the switch in time that saved nine," suggesting that Roberts cast his vote to defeat President Roosevelt's court-packing plan. To dilute the voting power of the existing nine justices on the Supreme Court, who had been striking down much New Deal legislation, Roosevelt had proposed to expand the number of justices, a move that would enable him to add justices more favorable to his New Deal objectives. Historians disagree, however, over whether Roberts had knowledge of Roosevelt's plan at the time he cast his vote. Additionally, Roberts had previously voted in favor of state legislation that had been enacted to address the worst effects of the Great Depression, much like some of the New Deal legislation Congress had passed at the federal level. For example, in Home Building & Loan Association v. Blaisdell, 290 U.S. 398, 54 S. Ct. 231, 78 L. Ed. 413 (1934), Roberts joined four other justices in upholding a Minnesota law that placed a MORATORIUM on the foreclosure of mortgages.

Roberts's constitutional JURISPRUDENCE is difficult to categorize and was somewhat unpredictable. In Grovey v. Townsend, 295 U.S. 45, 55 S. Ct. 622, 79 L. Ed. 1292 (1935), for example, Roberts wrote for a unanimous Court in upholding the constitutionality of white primaries, which denied African Americans the right to elect party delegates for the national convention. Three years later, in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337, 59 S. Ct. 232, 83 L. Ed. 208 (1938), Roberts concurred with a majority of justices who relied on the EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE to invalidate a state statute authorizing the University of Missouri to exclude blacks from its law school.

Although Roberts upheld white primaries in Grovey, he supported racial minorities in KOREMATSU V. UNITED STATES, 323 U.S. 214, 65 S. Ct. 193, 89 L. Ed. 194 (1944). In Korematsu the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of an EXECUTIVE ORDER authorizing the forcible detention of more than a hundred thousand Americans of Japanese descent during WORLD WAR II. Roberts dissented, attacking the rationale underlying the executive order, which ostensibly had been promulgated for the purpose of

protecting the United States from risks of sabotage. Roberts argued that forcible detention was really just a euphemism for imprisonment and that Japanese Americans were being punished solely on the grounds of their ancestry "without evidence or inquiry concerning [their] loyalty and good disposition towards the United States." In this light Roberts concluded that the record revealed a clear constitutional violation.

Roberts retired from the Supreme Court in 1945. He then returned to the University of Pennsylvania where he served as dean of the law school from 1948 to 1951. Three years later, on May 17, 1955, Roberts suffered a heart attack and died at his Pennsylvania farm in West Vincent Township.


Abraham, Henry. 1982. Freedom and the Court. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

White, G. Edward. 1988. The American Judicial Tradition. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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