Albert Levitt (March 14, 1887 – June 18, 1968) was a judge, law professor, attorney, and candidate for political office. While he was a memorable teacher at Washington and Lee University, and as judge of the United States District Court for the Virgin Islands ordered that woman voters must be registered, he later came to hold what some thought were eccentric views on religion.
Levitt was born in Maryland; at the age of 17 he joined the Army and served seven years, rising to the rank of sergeant. He then went to seminary and obtained a degree. After World War I broke out, he twice served, once in the ambulance corps for the French and back in the U.S. Army once the United States joined the war.
After the war, he returned to school, obtaining two legal degrees, and joined the Bar. He had a number of teaching positions at various universities, and served briefly as a Federal judge in the Virgin Islands. While there, he issued decrees forcing reluctant local election officials to allow women to vote.
Levitt published a number of books on religion, and ran for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in California in 1950. He finished sixth out of six behind the winner, Richard Nixon, three cross-filing Democrats, and another fringe candidate who would be convicted of bigamy the following year. He died in 1968.
Levitt was born on March 14, 1887, in Woodbine, Maryland. At the age of seventeen, he joined the United States Army and served seven years, rising to the rank of sergeant. After leaving the Army, he attended Meadville Theological School, which was run by the Unitarians, and received his Bachelor of Divinity in 1911. In 1913, he received a B.A. from Columbia University.
Levitt served as a lecturer at Columbia after his graduation, but in 1915 crossed the Atlantic and joined the American Ambulance Corps in the French Army in 1915. He returned to the United States, where he spent a year teaching philosophy at Colgate University. When the United States joined the war in 1917, he joined the army again and served from 1917 to 1919 as a chaplain. During his time on the Western Front, he was both wounded and gassed.
Harvard and the ERA
Levitt had spent a brief period at Harvard as an ROTC instructor; he returned there as a law student in 1919 and received his LL.B. the following year. While at Harvard, he came to view Dean Roscoe Pound as his mentor, and, in part due to his romantic relationship to women's activist Elsie Hill, became affiliated with the National Woman's Party. Women's rights leader Alice Paul consulted both Pound and Levitt in seeking to draft what became known as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), to give equality to women without eroding special protections. Dean Pound was willing to help, so long as his involvement was not publicized. Levitt, seeking to avoid conflict with existing laws protecting women, drafted at least 75 versions of the ERA for Paul. He also consulted with future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who was then counsel to the Washington, D.C. Minimum Wage Board, who commented on various drafts, feeling that any version of the ERA would have the side effect of eviscerating current legal protections for women. Levitt attempted to change Frankfurter's mind, but was unsuccessful. He wrote to Paul, "The net result of the interview is nothing."
Although both Pound and Frankfurter had given Levitt advice on condition that their names not be used, NWP activists falsely claimed that they had approved the text of the ERA as suitable for either legislation or constitutional amendment. Levitt apologized to both, and wrote Paul that he could not now consult anyone he trusted about the ERA for fear of being betrayed again. Nevertheless, influenced by Hill, he continued his work for Paul until the end of 1921. On December 24, 1921, by now working at the University of North Dakota, he married Hill in Chicago.
Legal and teaching career
He served one year teaching assignments in law at George Washington University and the University of North Dakota before returning to school himself at Yale University, receiving his J.D. in 1923. From 1923 to 1924, he served as a Special Assistant Attorney General.
In 1924, he was hired as assistant professor of law at Washington and Lee University. He made a deep impression there as, according to the school's web site, "likely the most unusual, colorful, and, some would contend, eccentric law teacher in the history of Washington and Lee" but also as a "teacher of great ability". His wife retained her maiden name and their daughter was known by the surname "Hill-Levitt", unconventional for the conservative southern town of Lexington, Virginia. Levitt also was involved in conflict with the law school dean, and when his contract expired in 1927, it was not renewed.
Governmental, political, and judicial career
Levitt was for many years a resident of Connecticut and involved himself in affairs there, getting the Supreme Court of Errors of Connecticut to order the state's attorney general to take action against railroads for failure to eliminate at-grade crossings as required by law. Levitt ran in 1932 for Governor of Connecticut as an Independent Republican, but failed to receive the nomination.
From 1933 to 1935, Levitt again served as a special assistant attorney general. In 1935, Levitt was appointed as judge of the District Court for the Virgin Islands. He stated in an interview that he did not intend to be a public spectacle, but to live a lonely life. Levitt was interviewed by the local paper, which indicated that he brought a dog and a special supply of tropical dog food for him to assuage the loneliness. He was sworn in on October 17. He also brought Elsie Hill, who busied herself with local women's affairs and was outraged to learn that under Danish Colonial Law, still mostly in force in the Virgin Islands, local women could not vote. According to one local woman, Hill told women activists that if they brought suit, her husband would uphold the right of women to vote in the possession. Hill obtained a prominent New York attorney to represent the islanders without fee, and in November, Judge Levitt ruled the disenfranchisement unconstitutional under the Nineteenth Amendment. The local electoral board still refused to register women, and the following month, Judge Levitt issued a writ of mandamus, forcing the board to comply.
In 1936, Judge Levitt, in response to the Governor's pardon (which included a lengthy harangue against the judge) of a convict he had sentenced, resigned from his post and returned to his position at the Justice Department, where he remained until 1937.
In 1937, Levitt filed a petition in the Supreme Court of the United States, seeking to block the seating of new appointee, Senator Hugo Black. Levitt argued that as Black's predecessor on the Court, Justice Willis Van Devanter, had only retired, and not resigned (a new law had permitted retirement), there was no vacancy, and as that the retirement law had increased the emoluments of the office, Black was ineligible under the Incompatibility Clause of the Constitution. In the decision, Ex parte Levitt, the Court found that Levitt's standing, as a citizen and member of the Supreme Court Bar, was not sufficient to allow him to challenge the seating of Black. When he heard of the decision, Levitt quoted from the Book of Job: "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him; but I will maintain my own ways before Him."
Levitt ran twice for the Republican nomination for the United States Senate. He ran in California in 1950, on an anti-Catholic platform. He finished sixth out of sixth in the primary, behind the winner, Congressman Richard Nixon, three cross-filing Democrats, and another fringe candidate. In 1960, Levitt, running unsuccessfully for the Senate from New Hampshire, telegraphed Pope John XXIII and asked him to clarify whether Senator John F. Kennedy, a Catholic who was seeking the Democratic nomination for President, owed political allegiance to the Vatican or to the United States. According to Levitt's research, some 150 principles of the Roman Catholic Church conflicted with the Constitution. There is no record of any reply by the Pope.
- Albert Levitt (1887–1968), Washington and Lee University School of Law, retrieved 2009-08-04
- Butler, Amy (2002), Two paths to equality, SUNY Press, pp. 94–98, ISBN 0-7914-5319-7, retrieved 2009-08-04
- "Miss Elsie Hill, suffrage picketer, weds Prof. Levitt, but will keep her own name" (PDF), The New York Times, January 19, 1922, retrieved 2009-08-06 (fee for article)
- "Albert Levitt, 81, crusader, is dead", The New York Times, June 19, 1968, retrieved 2009-08-06 (fee for article)
- "An interview with Judge Albert Levitt", The Daily News (St. Thomas, V.I.), October 16, 1935, retrieved 2009-08-06
- "Judge Levitt sworn in Virgin Islands", The New York Times, October 18, 1935, retrieved 2009-08-06 (fee for article)
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- Jordan, Frank (1950), State of California Statement of Vote, Direct Primary Election and Special State-wide Election, June 6, 1950, California State Printing Office, pp. 15–16.
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