8 noteworthy Supreme Court justices

Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter may have had a cartoon name, but he was a pretty serious guy.
Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter may have had a cartoon name, but he was a pretty serious guy.

by Brian Clarey

1. Antonin Scalia (1986-2016)
I was in high school when President Ronald Reagan appointed Scalia to the bench. I remember my family — mostly Catholics and Italians — was way into it. He was a staunchly conservative addition to a left-leaning court, which in later years would drift to the right, and he kept those principles throughout his tenure, which not every supposedly conservative appointee has done.

2. John Jay (1789-95)
The first chief justice of the Supreme Court, appointed by George Washington himself, came with a distinguished résumé: president of the Continental Congress, contributing author of the Federalist Papers, secretary of foreign affairs. Washington created the job for Jay, whose wonkiness in government matters shepherded the court through its first procedural years.

3. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1902-32)
Holmes set the template for the 20th Century jurist, a Civil War veteran (he fought for the Yankees) appointed by President Teddy Roosevelt. He coined such phrases as “clear and present danger” and “fruit of the poisonous tree,” referring to evidence obtained during illegal searches.

4. William Howard Taft (1921-30)
What made Taft’s appointment by President Warren G. Harding unique was that Taft himself sat as president for a single term. His effect on the court was profound. He consolidated its power over lower courts, streamlined procedure and spearheaded the effort to build the Supreme Court Building.

5. Felix Frankfurter (1938-57)
Frankfurter makes the list because of his cartoon name — “Felix Frankfurter, at your service!” — but also because he was an Austrian Jew from a family of rabbis who advised FDR and helped create the ACLU before ascending to the bench.

6. Earl Warren (1953-69)
President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren, who as attorney general of California was responsible for establishing Japanese interment camps during World War II, with the notion that he would be a bedrock Republican judge. But as chief justice, Warren presided over a tumultuous time in history with a progressive viewpoint. His first case was Brown v. Board of Education, which demolished the “separate but equal” doctrine, helped end mandatory prayer in schools, and presided over the case that brought Miranda rights into the lexicon. After he retired, he led the investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

7. Thurgood Marshall (1967-91)
The first African-American justice to the Supremes came to prominence a few years earlier while arguing the Brown v. Board of Education case. Before that, he went to college with Langston Hughes and Cab Calloway. On the bench, he stood fast against the death penalty and for individual rights, especially in matters against the government.

8. Sandra Day O’Connor (1981-2006)
The first of three justices appointed by Reagan, O’Connor was the first woman on the bench. Like Scalia, she was one of a small faction of conservatives on the bench. Unlike Scalia, she could occasionally be persuaded to vote against the conservative bloc. But in the end, she came through, casting the swing vote in the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision.