In Owen Josephus Roberts’ long and distinguished legal career that spanned nearly 50 years, he was a prominent Philadelphia attorney, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and dean of Penn Law School.
The Philadelphia native received his undergraduate and law degrees from Penn and taught at the Law School for 20 years, starting as an instructor shortly after graduation from the Law School.
While Roberts ran a successful private law practice during his early years as a lawyer, he spent most of his career in the public sector. He was first assistant district attorney in Philadelphia for several years, and was named by the U.S. Attorney General as a special assistant to prosecute cases under the World War I Espionage Act. He helped convict several people for sedition, treason, and disloyalty.
His first nationally prominent position came in 1924 when President Calvin Coolidge appointed Roberts as a special prosecutor in the Teapot Dome oil lease scandal.
As an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1930-45, Roberts was known for his impressive style of memorizing and then delivering the Court’s decisions without having to refer to his manuscript. Less solemn than most other justices at the time, Roberts often smiled from the bench and would occasionally whisper sly remarks to colleagues nearby, according to his 1955 obituary in the Philadelphia Bulletin.
Roberts also served as the chairman of the commission investigating the Pearl Harbor attack, and in 1946, President Harry Truman tapped Roberts to chair an amnesty board to review cases of people convicted of World War II draft violations.
Roberts’ civic interests included serving on the boards of the Boy Scouts and Lincoln University, and as chairman of the local United Negro College Fund drive.
In 1948, when he was 73 years old, he became dean of Penn Law School, where he remained until he retired in 1951.
For more information about this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives online.