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This Week in Legal History -- Judges

On this day in legal history we celebrate the birth of two titans of the bench; judges whose influence not only on the law, but on society at large, are not in doubt. I am of course referring to Associate Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and Judge Joseph Wapner who presided over The People’s Court. Who could have imagined that two such influential and esteemed men of the law would also share a birthday?

Justice Felix Frankfurter was born in Vienna, Austria on November 15, 1882 and emigrated to the United States in 1894 when he was twelve years old. Frankfurter was an excellent student who attended City College of New York and Harvard Law School where he excelled becoming editor of the Harvard Law Review. Frankfurter worked for Henry Stimson who became Secretary of War under President Taft. When Stimson moved to Washington DC he took Frankfurter with him. Frankfurter was soon invited to join the faculty at Harvard Law School. During World War I he returned to Washington DC as a Judge Advocate General. During this period of his life Frankfurter came to be known as a radical participating in Zionist politics and helping to create the ACLU. After the war he returned to Harvard where he worked on his theory of judicial restraint. Frankfurter acted as an adviser to FDR even while he was teaching at Harvard. Upon the death of Justice Benjamin Cardozo, FDR nominated Frankfurter to the Supreme Court to fill the “Jewish seat.” Frankfurter was confirmed without dissent, and was the first nominee to appear in person before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Frankfurter’s tenure on the high court is remembered by his championing of the theory of judicial restraint. Under this philosophy great deference is given to the elected branches of government in the decisions they make, and such decisions should only be overturned if they “shock the conscience.” Frankfurter’s judicial philosophy, combined with his penchant for lecturing his colleagues on the court, sapped his influence and isolated him from the other justices. Frankfurter, as a Supreme Court justice, has come to be viewed if not as a failure as a justice then certainly as a disappointment.

No one could view Judge Joseph Wapner as a failure or as a disappointment. Joseph Albert Wapner was born on November 15, 1919 in Los Angeles, California. He attended Hollywood High School, where he dated Lana Turner (before she was Lana Turner) and received his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Southern California. Between getting his B.A. and his J.D. he served in the U.S. Army during WWII where he was awarded a Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. Joseph Wapner served on the Los Angeles Municipal Court and Governor Pat Brown elevated him to the Los Angeles County Superior Court in 1959 where he presided until his retirement in 1979. Soon after retiring from the bench Judge Wapner’s second career began. In 1981 Judge Wapner was appointed to another court, The People’s Court, where he presided over 2,484 episodes and approximately 7,000 cases; far more than Justice Felix Frankfurter. Judge Wapner stepped down from the The People's Court in 1993 returning in 2009 for one episode in celebration of his 90th birthday. Judge Wapner also appeared on the Animal Planet cable channel show Judge Wapner’s Animal Court from 1998 to 2000 and made some cameo appearances as himself in several television shows.

How do these two men of the bench measure up against each other? After retiring in 1962 Frankfurter received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Wapner has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Associate justice Felix Frankfurter wrote 247 opinions, 132 concurring opinions, and 251 dissents. Judge Joseph Wapner appeared in almost 2,500 episodes ruling on some 7,000 disputes, and it would appear he was never overruled. Frankfurter reminds us of hot-dogs; Wapner reminds us of the Oscar winning movie Rain Man. Frankfurter became the flag-bearer of the philosophy of judicial restraint after the retirement of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Wapner’s People’s Court spawned numerous imitators such as Judge Judy and Judge Joe Brown; shows in which televised judges solve the problems of real people, shows that continue to be a mainstays of day-time television line-ups demonstrating the legal system to the stay-at-home parent, the unemployed, and those needing an advance on their personal injury settlement.

Both of these men dedicated their lives to the law. There is something correct that these two men who wore black robes and dispensed justice to so many should share a birthday.


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