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Historical Biography

Solicitor General: J. Lee Rankin

Photo of Solicitor General J. Lee Rankin
J. Lee Rankin
31st Solicitor General, -

Known for his straightforward, quiet, and friendly demeanor, James Lee Rankin (known to his friends and colleagues as Lee), loved to tend roses, play the piccolo, and was an enthusiastic amateur photographer. Rankin was the son of Herman P. and Lois Gable Rankin. He was born in Harington, Nebraska, on July 7, 1907 and attended public schools before receiving both his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Nebraska. After graduating from law school in 1930, Rankin was admitted to the Nebraska Bar Association and began his law career with a firm in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1935, he became a partner and worked with the firm for over 20 years. In 1952, Rankin managed the Eisenhower for President campaign in Nebraska and in 1953, President Eisenhower selected Rankin to serve as assistant attorney general.

As assistant attorney general in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel, Rankin may best be remembered for arguing in favor of the African-American plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), advocating that the doctrine of "separate-but-equal" facilities for blacks and whites was unconstitutional. After the Court's ruling in Brown , Rankin argued in a presentation before the Court that the effort to desegregate schools should take place gradually in an effort to avoid any violence that might arise from the decision. Accordingly, he suggested the plan by which local school districts submitted desegregation plans to federal judges in their states. In addition, Rankin was instrumental in resolving conflicting claims among Western states to the Colorado River, and in establishing a balance of federal and state jurisdictions in offshore oil drilling.

On August 14, 1956, Rankin was appointed U.S. solicitor general. In response to lawsuits in many states arising out of legislative reapportionment fights, he developed the Justice Department's position that led to the principle of one person, one vote. After serving as solicitor general from August 1956 to January 1961, Rankin represented the American Civil Liberties Union in advancing the landmark case, Gideon v. Wainwright , solidifying the right of an indigent person accused of a crime to have legal counsel at public expense.

Following President John F. Kennedy's 1964 assassination, Rankin was the unanimous choice of the Warren Commission to serve as general counsel in the inquiry that concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in killing President Kennedy. He was credited with redrafting and editing the commission's voluminous report into a work of polished prose. Subsequently, Rankin practiced law in New York City until the 1970s, working seven years with the New York City Corporation Counsel (1966-1972).

Upon retirement, Rankin and his wife of 63 years, Gertrude, moved to Weston, CT, where they had a summer home. In 1993, they moved to Los Gatos, CA. Mr. and Mrs. Rankin had two sons, James Jr., Roger C., and one daughter, Sara Stadler, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Rankin passed away on June 28, 1996, at the age of 88, in Santa Cruz, CA.

Updated September 18, 2023