Appointed to the Supreme Court for his crusading prosecution of the Teapot Dome Scandal in the 1920s, Owen Roberts went from New Deal obstructionist to enabler after Roosevelt threatened to “pack” the court. Was the alumnus and future Law School dean merely expedient, or a statesman who put country before consistency? By Dennis Drabelle


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The Justice Who Was of Two Minds By Dennis Drabelle
Photos: University Archives


Before Rod Blagojevich or Jack Abramoff, before Nixon approved that second-rate burglary or Bill met Monica, there was the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s. Though far from the most lucrative or juiciest case of government wrongdoing, it does stand out in one respect: When it comes to building federal cases, few can match the standard set by Teapot Dome special prosecutor Owen J. Roberts C1895 L1898.

Roberts worked for five years to expose a group of crooks that included a member of the president’s cabinet, going so far as to pay his own expenses to keep the investigation alive when Congress was late in funding it. Largely on the strength of his Teapot Dome performance, Roberts was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1930.

A few years later, however, most Americans held a quite different view of Roberts: He was he one of the “nine old men” obstructing the New Deal. And then he made the “switch in time that saved nine”—a reference to Roberts’s perceived move toward the judicial Left when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, frustrated by the high court’s repeatedly thwarting his legislative efforts to combat the Great Depression, tried to “pack” it with new justices who could be counted on to vote his way. In joining with liberal colleagues to uphold the constitutionality of several New Deal programs—thus reducing the urgency to remodel the court—Roberts is assumed to have saluted the president.

It hasn’t been easy to square these contrasting images of Roberts as a vigorous, improvising prosecutor on the one hand, and a drifting, expediency-minded judge on the other. However, a pair of recent books, focusing on the Teapot Dome scandal and on the court-packing scheme, suggest that in both instances Roberts acted as a statesman. Although the famous switch was not a direct response to Roosevelt’s attempt to remake the court, it looks like a calculated maneuver by a man less concerned about his own consistency than about the future of his country.

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