Owen J. Roberts

Owen J. Roberts
Photo credit: University Archives

Owen Josephus Roberts graduated from Penn Law in 1898 with highest honors. Then he went about building a hugely successful and influential legal career, both in private and public practice, that culminated with his appointment to the nation’s highest court.

Born in Philadelphia in 1875, Roberts would spend much of his early career here. He was a member of the Penn Law faculty until 1919, and during that time also served as District Attorney of Philadelphia, a Special Assistant United States Attorney, and founder of the law firm now called Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads.

His career really took off, however, in 1930—the year President Herbert Hoover named him to the Supreme Court. The appointment put Roberts there just after the arrival of the Great Depression, and just before President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched his efforts to fight it. Though Roberts at first sided with the court’s conservatives—nicknamed “The Four Horsemen”—in battling many of FDR’s New Deal proposals, he changed course with his vote in 1937’s West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, which upheld the minimum wage. The decision signaled the court’s shift toward supporting FDR and is recognized as one of the important rulings of the 20th century.

Roberts retired from the court in 1945 and returned home to Penn, where he served as dean and taught a seminar on constitutional law. He died in 1955.

For more on this, go to the University Archives web site at www.archives.upenn.edu.

Originally published on December 4, 2008