The U.S. Supreme Court is generally thought of as a serene haven. For Abe Fortas, that view has been obscured by some ominous clouds. When Lyndon Johnson nominated his old friend and adviser to the high court in 1965, witnesses turned the Senate confirmation hearing into a denunciation of Fortas. The Justice later distinguished himself in three court sessions, only to face more virulentand effectiveopposition last year when Johnson selected him to succeed Earl Warren as Chief Justice. Partly because of conservative disgruntlement with Fortas' liberal record and partly because of Republican confidence that the G.O.P. would shortly be able to name the Chief Justice, the nomination bogged down in an acrimonious Senate filibuster. Johnson finally withdrew Fortas' name.
Now Fortas is a target again. This week's LIFE says that while on the Supreme Court Fortas became involved with Louis Wolfson, a corporate adventurer who is serving a one-year sentence for selling unregistered stock. Three months after taking his oath, says LIFE, Fortas received $20,000 from the Wolfson Family Foundation, ostensibly for advising the foundation on philanthropic affairs. Fortas returned the money after Wolfson was indicted on criminal charges; the reason given by Fortas' former law partner was that the Justice had been too busy with court affairs to do anything for the foundation.
Without Fortas' knowledge, reports LIFE, Wolfson used the Justice's name in an attempt to stay out of prison. LIFE quotes a Government witness as saying that Fortas, while a member of the high court, had discussed the case against Wolfson during a visit to Wolfson's Florida horse farm in June 1966, and that Wolfson had used Fortas' name as reassurance to keep other conspirators from cooperating with Government prosecutors. LIFE did not charge, or claim to have any evidence, that Fortas had either helped Wolfson or been retained to do so.
In a letter denying a request by LIFE editors for a meeting to discuss the information uncovered by the magazine, Fortas wrote: "Since there has been no impropriety, or anything approaching it, in my conduct, no purpose would be served by any such meeting." Fortas acknowledged visiting the Wolfson farm and said that he "was present at a meeting of the Wolfson Family Foundation," but added: "I did not, of course, participate in any of Mr. Wolfson's business or legal affairs during that visit, nor have I done so at any time since I retired from law practice."
Fortas' letter did not mention the $20,000. Nor did Fortaswho is a rich man, a legal scholar, a violin virtuoso and a collector of art and antiquesreally address himself to the key question posed by LIFE: Why would a man of his legal brilliance and high position do business with a well-known corporate-stock manipulator known to be under federal investigation?