Uncovering What the FBI Had On the Supreme Court in the 1960s

March 13, 2024   |   Amber Nimocks

Alex Charns’ new book, FBI Snitches, Blackmail, and Obscene Ethics at the Supreme Court (Bull City Law Publishing 2024) chronicles his 13-year legal battle to gain release of FBI files so secret and scandalous that the FBI denied they even existed. It is a follow-up to his first book, Cloak and Gavel. FBI Wiretaps, Bugs, Informers, and the Supreme Court (Univ. of Illinois 1992).  

The new book details how it took Charns three FOIA lawsuits to get the unindexed files that provide a look at how J. Edgar Hoover leveraged sexual blackmail and used U.S. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas as a Bureau informant.  

Charns has been investigating the connection between the FBI and the U.S. Supreme Court since just after he graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Law in 1983. He said he was inspired by the work of his mentor, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Garrow, who wrote about Hoover’s FBI and its surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. Charns’ exploration of his own FBI file eventually helped him craft the FOIA requests he needed to extract the classified files.

“What these records show, in the most egregious example of judicial misconduct, Fortas was informing the FBI in 1966 about electronic surveillance cases that the FBI had before the court,” Charns said. “Fortas recused himself and said ‘I’m disqualified’ because he had been working with President Johnson very closely… But he goes to conference about these electronic surveillance cases, lobbies for the FBI position — the position is to blame Bobby Kennedy, who LBJ hated, who Hoover hated — and he’s producing memos and handing them out to his brethren to advocate the FBI position and telling the FBI what the court is going to do.”

Charns writes that proof was hidden from Senate investigators, journalists, historians and FOIA requesters for decades. The book contains an FBI documents appendix containing files from Hoover’s official and confidential files.

“It’s disturbing history, and history that had been reported, but not about the court,” Charns said. “I was kind of flummoxed how it was that the historians passed over this.”

It’s been 42 years since he originally requested the documents that inform the story. More information comes to light after each file release and with each publication, prompting more questions, so his quest continues. Considering the controversy swirling around today’s Supreme Court and the questions about conflicts of interest that have arisen, Charns wonders what might come to light decades hence.

“Today is probably the bad old days we won’t find out about for 50 years,” he said. “If I’m alive when I’m 120, I can tell you then.”