WASHINGTON -- Even a former law clerk who said Abe Fortas wasn't 'a very nice person' agreed with the overwhelming commemoration of the one-time Supreme Court justice Tuesday for his 'brilliant' legal mind.
Current members of the high court -- including some who never served with Fortas -- looked beyond his scandal-clouded descent from the high court in 1969 and praised him as 'a distinguished member of the profession' and 'an exceptionally gifted lawyer.'
'The sudden death of Justice Fortas came as a great shock to me,' said retired Justice Potter Stewart, who sat next to Fortas on the mahogany bench. 'He was truly a brilliant man, and he will be greatly missed.'
Chief Justice Warren Burger -- appointed to the court's top slot after Fortas' own nomination was blocked -- emphasized Fortas' contributions as a private attorney to the judiciary's rule-making committee.
But not all memories of the former justice, who died late Monday of a burst aorta at age 71, were unblemished.
'I think he was one the greatest lawyers of the century, but I don't think he was a very nice person,' said New York attorney Daniel Levitt, who was Fortas' law clerk his first two terms on the court in 1965 and 1966.
While praising the liberal-leaning justice for 'an original mind' and for being 'exceedingly bright and a marvelous writer,' Levitt remembered friction between Fortas and his 'brethren,' at least at the start of his Supreme Court tenure.
'He did not get along very well. He had a hard time treating them as equals. I think they resented it,' Levitt sad.
He recalled Fortas once exploded at Justice Hugo Black for writing a memo that challenged one of Fortas' draft opinions and parodied Fortas' distinctive writing style.
'To attack his writing style, that was the last straw,' Levitt said in a telephone interview. 'Fortas went in and demanded an apology - and got it.'
Levitt also said that although Fortas was a hard worker, he did not always have his heart in his Supreme Court job during President Johnson's term. Fortas was a close adviser of Johnson's, a role that continued after LBJ named him to the high court.
'While Johnson was president,' Levitt said, 'he spent so much of his energy at the White House counseling the president on the Vietnam War and other matters, he often didn't have much energy left when he came to work at the court.'
But that view conflicts with the memories of another Fortas clerk - Peter Zimroth -- who worked for the justice in 1967 and called him an 'enormously hard and intense worker.'
'He expected the best from everybody,' said Zimroth, who now is in private practice in New York. 'That was sort of instilled in me, to expect the best of myself and those around me.'
Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, who have seen the high court swing to right from its liberal heyday when Fortas was on the bench, expressed shock at his sudden death.
'He was not only our esteemed colleague but also a close friend,' they said in a statement. 'He made a very distinct contribution in many areas of public service.'
Conservative Justice William Rehnquist said Fortas 'will rightfully be held in high regard by the members of his profession.'
Former Puerto Rican Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon said the Caribbean island 'has lost a great friend' with the death of Fortas, who forged strong ties to Puerto Rico in his early role with the Interior Department.
Two weeks before he died, Fortas appeared before the Supreme Court for the first time since his resignation nearly 13 years ago to represent Colon's Popular Democratic Party in a case involving the island's legislative assembly.