A respected law professor and esteemed jurist, Owen Josephus Roberts was born on May 2, 1875 in Germantown, Pennsylvania. After attending Germantown Academy, Roberts enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania when he was only sixteen years old. Upon his graduation in 1895, he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania Law School, from which he graduated with honors in 1898. With his election to University Fellow, he stayed on as an instructor until 1919, first as an adjunct professor and later as full Professor beginning in 1907.
Roberts enjoyed a long and successful career in law. He was a founding partner in the firm known today as Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads, LLP. There, he established a nationally recognized reputation as a gifted trial lawyer. Though he enjoyed the challenges and research involved in such trials, a succession of national appointments including Special Assistant United States Attorney in 1918 and Special Counsel for the United States in 1924 proved that he was destined for more. In 1930, President Herbert Hoover appointed him to the Supreme Court of the United States. His appointment was confirmed by the Senate on June 2, 1930, marking the official beginning of fifteen years of service on the highest court in the United States.
During his tenure as a Supreme Court Justice, Owen Roberts maintained thorough investigations built upon his own ideals of liberty and justice. Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone later praised Roberts for “making fidelity to principle [his] guide to decision.” Developing a keen interest in relations between races, Roberts wisely believed that “unreasoning hatred constituted the only menace to the foundations of this Country’s government. Race, color and political hatreds have no place in a government of reason, which ours should be.”
In December 1942, Chief Justice Stone wrote a letter to President Roosevelt urging for “the creation of an organization functioning under the auspices of the Government, for the protection and conservation of works of art and of artistic or historic monument and records in Europe, and to aid in salvaging and returning to, or compensation in kind, the lawful owners of such objects which have been appropriated by the Axis powers or by individuals acting with their authority or consent.” In April 1943, President Roosevelt replied with not only his wholehearted consent but with a promise to direct American commanders to give the committee every assistance that did not interfere with military operations. On August 20, 1943, the Department of State announced the establishment of The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe under the Chairmanship of Roberts. Known as “the Robert Commission,” the creation of this historic group signaled the birth of the MFAA.
In July 1945, Roberts retired from the Supreme Court and returned to the world of academia. He served as Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School from 1948 to 1951. In addition, he was elected President of the Law Academy of Philadelphia and Secretary of the Law Association of Philadelphia. He served on the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, the Board of the Ford Foundation for the Advancement of Education, the Board of Trustees of Lincoln University, and Life Trustee of the University of Pennsylvania.
Owen Roberts died on May 17, 1955 at Bryn Coed, his family’s farm in Birchrunville, Pennsylvania.