Penn law school gets $8.6 million gift

Penn law school's Golkin Hall.

The family of the late Owen Roberts, a onetime U.S. Supreme Court justice and University of Pennsylvania law school dean, on Thursday announced an $8.6 million gift to the law school.

The money, a bequest from the estate of Elizabeth Hamilton, Roberts' daughter, will be used for student financial aid.

Roberts played a pivotal role on the Supreme Court during World War II, and voted against the Roosevelt administration in a case testing its policy of placing tens of thousands of Japanese Americans in internment camps.

The Penn law school also announced a $1 million gift from graduate Michael J. Rotko to fund instruction in legal writing and communications. Rotko was former U.S. Attorney Michael Baylson's top assistant in the early 1990s, and for years was close to Arlen Specter, the U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.

"These gifts provide crucial support for students and programs across the law school," law school dean Ted Ruger said. "This funding will help us continue to attract the best students, while supporting them financially, academically and professionally."

Born in 1875, Roberts graduated from Germantown Academy, attended Penn as an undergraduate, and graduated at the top of his class from the law school.

He had an illustrious legal career, first coming to prominence by prosecuting the so-called Teapot Dome Scandal. That probe centered on favoritism in awarding government oil leases and resulted in the conviction of former Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall. Roberts was later appointed to the Supreme Court by President Herbert Hoover, a Republican, taking office on May 20, 1930.

For a time, he was known as a swing vote on the court, sometimes siding with the appointees of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, and at others voting with the Republican holdovers. He was best known for his vote against the administration in Korematsu v. the United States, a case testing the administration's policy of holding Japanese Americans in internment camps while U.S. forces fought Japan in the Pacific.

The court, then dominated by Democratic appointees, upheld the policy, but Roberts was joined by two Democratic appointees in the 6-3 vote.

He retired from the court in 1945 and went on to serve as dean of the Penn law school from 1948 to 1951. He died at his Chester County farm in 1955. Elizabeth Hamilton was the only child of Roberts and his wife, also named Elizabeth. Hamilton died in 1995 at the age of 89 and had lived in Darien, Conn. Because of restrictions on the gift, it only recently became available to the law school.

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