Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Photo of the Day: The Enduring Legacy of a Supreme Court Justice

I am pretty sure that in the city of Jamestown, N.Y., more visitors come to the Lucy-Desi Museum, or even to the more recently opened National Comedy Center. But neither of these places, as fun and fascinating as they are to visit, is worth pondering for the tourist in this corner of southwest New York State as much as the Robert H. Jackson Center, a not-for-profit institution dedicated to commemorating the principles of a great Supreme Court Justice.

Much to his chagrin, Robert H. Jackson—appointed as an Associate Justice after serving as Franklin Roosevelt’s Solicitor General and Attorney General—never achieved his ambition of becoming Chief Justice. Moreover, with only 13 years on the Supreme Court before his death in 1953, he did not have the opportunity to serve even half the length that seems to have become the rule over the past couple of decades.

But Jackson indisputably made his mark on the high court through decisions that, for wit, pungency, personality, and grace of style, are probably exceeded only by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Moreover, when he served as the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, he delivered a powerful opening statement that stands as the definitive summation of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime as well as the need for international law to counter aggression in the future.

COVID-19 precludes my wish that throngs could pass through this site, the historic Alonzo Kent Mansion. (Jackson practiced law for most of his professional career only two blocks away.) There, they could see exhibits devoted to his life and work, or attend events that highlight the continuing relevance of the issues that Jackson ruled on. I had an opportunity to visit 13 years ago, when I took this photo.

But, as America weighs—unfortunately, not with the gravity or non-partisanship it deserves—the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s now-vacant seat, it would do well to consider the words of Jackson that sit outside the center dedicated in his memory:

“The very purpose of the Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects…from political controversy. One’s…fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”

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