Abe Fortas was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of an immigrant cabinetmaker. After graduating from Southwestern University in Memphis, Fortas attended Yale Law School. He joined the faculty there after graduation, but was quickly lured to the New Deal lawyers in Washington.
Fortas provided behind-the-scenes advice to Democratic politicians for years prior to his appointment to the Court in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson. Fortas had represented Johnson when Johnson's eighty-four-vote victory in the 1948 Texas Democratic primary was challenged. During his years of private practice in Washington, Fortas found time to defend victims of McCarthyism and litigate important cases, including Gideon v. Wainwright which established the right of indigents to counsel in state criminal cases. In 1969, Life magazine revealed that Fortas had accepted and then returned a fee of $20,000 from a charitable foundation controlled by the family of an indicted stock manipulator. Fortas resigned from the bench in 1969 but denied any wrongdoing.