WASHINGTON -- Abe Fortas, who played a key role in some of the greatest civil liberties decisions in American history but left the Supreme Court under threat of impeachment, is dead at 71.
Fortas -- nominated by his friend Lyndon Johnson to be chief justice of the United States but who later became the first person forced off the high court by allegations of scandal -- was pronounced dead at 9:40 p.m. EST Monday at Georgetown University Hospital.
A hospital spokeswoman said later that death resulted from a ruptured aorta -- the body's main artery.
His secretary, Inga Seckinger, said Fortas collapsed at his home in the fashionable Georgetown section of Washington.
He died two weeks after making his first official return to the velvet-draped courtroom of the nation's highest tribunal, from which he resigned in May 1969. He participated in arguments on a case involving Puerto Rico's system for filling mid-term legislative vacancies.
The first high court members to comment on his death were Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall -- the only remaining members of the court's liberal wing from its activist era under Chief Justice Earl Warren.
'Justice Fortas' sudden death comes as a great shock to both of us,' they said in a joint statement. 'He is not only our esteemed colleague, but also a close friend. We shall miss him.'
Potter Stewart, who retired from the high court last year, decribed Fortas as 'truly a brilliant man,' and Justice Harry Blackmun, who took the seat Fortas resigned, said he 'served this country well in many capacities.'
The son of an immigrant Jewish cabinetmaker who became a trusted adviser of Johnson before the Texan reached the White House, Fortas worked his way through Southwestern College in Memphis, Tenn. He graduated from Yale Law School, where he was editor in chief of its prestigious law journal.
Early in his career, Fortas taught at Yale, was a member of the Securities and Exchange Commission and served as undersecretary of the interior for President Franklin Roosevelt.
But it was in the 1960s that Fortas left his mark on the nation's legal annals.
As a lawyer, he represented Clarence Gideon before the court in 1963 and won a unanimous decision that declared a person accused of a crime has a right to a lawyer, even if he cannot pay for one himself.
As a justice, the most significant decision Fortas wrote established modern legal rights for children in trouble with the law. The ruling -- in the case of Gerald Gault of Globe, Ariz. -- required juvenile courts to provide defendants with key protections that had long been granted to adults under the Bill of Rights.
In the court's famous Miranda decision limiting police interrogations of criminal suspects, Fortas was part of the slender five-man majority.
And in 1968 he led the majority in striking down Arkansas' 'Monkey Law' that forbade the teaching of Darwin's Theory of Evolution in public schools.
Fortas, who remained a close adviser to LBJ after joining the high court in 1965, was nominated by Johnson to replace t Law School. The money was contributed by five businessmen, one of whom had a son involved in a federal criminal case.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved his nomination, but a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats launched a filibuster against it. Fortas then asked Johnson to withdraw his nomination -- a move that paved the way for President Nixon to appoint Warren Burger as chief justice.
Fortas encountered more serious problems in 1969, when reports surfaced that he accepted $20,000 from the foundation of industrialist Louis Wolfson. Fortas returned the money after Wolfson was twice indicted on federal stock charges.
Although Fortas insisted he had 'not accepted any fee or emolument,' members of Congress called for his resignation and threatened impeachment proceedings.
Fortas resigned -- making him the first justice to do so under a cloud of corruption -- and returned to private law practice in Washington.
When Nixon named Blackmun to fill the Fortas vacancy, it was the end of the so-called 'Jewish seat' on the high court, which had existed since the beginning of the 20th century.
Fortas is survived by his wife, Carolyn Agger, also a lawyer.
Funeral services for Fortas will be private, but were not immediately scheduled. A public memorial will be held in two or three weeks, associates said.