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Federal courthouse named for Jackson at official ceremony

For judges, lawyers and legal scholars, Robert H. Jackson’s legacy is the stuff of legend.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Chief prosecutor at Nuremberg. U.S. attorney general.

But for a young girl who grew up not knowing her grandfather, Jackson will be remembered for his “mythical pancakes.”

“My mother would often boast that he was the only one who could make flawless pancakes on an open fire,” said Julia Craighill, Jackson’s granddaughter.

On a day when Jackson the legal giant was hailed – the occasion was the naming ceremony of Buffalo’s 2-year-old federal courthouse – Craighill provided a glimpse into a more human Jackson.

He loved his hometown of Spring Creek, a small town in central Pennsylvania, and insisted on taking his two kids there once a summer while they were growing up.

Jackson would pitch a tent and relax by riding horses and cooking for his family.

“He believed the natural world had a lot to teach us,” Craighill told the standing-room-only crowd at the naming ceremony Monday.

It was a day for Jackson followers to celebrate a man who may be Buffalo’s most famous legal mind.

As a young lawyer, he worked in Jamestown and later in Buffalo, and while here, lived on Johnson Park, a street off Elmwood Avenue on the outskirts of downtown.

He often passed the current courthouse site while walking to and from work at Ellicott Square each day.

“Young Robert Jackson’s life ran right through this site,” said John Q. Barrett, a Jackson scholar and law professor at St. John’s University.

Jackson’s name and bust were unveiled as part of a ceremony that has its roots in Congress’ decision to name the $142 million courthouse for him.

“Today is a glorious, glorious day as we honor one of our own,” Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny said in his welcome to guests.

Jackson, who served on the Supreme Court in the 1940s and 1950s, was picked for the naming honor after the off-again, on-again project was completed in late 2011.

The building survived several political and financial setbacks over the years and was spearheaded by Skretny and U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara.

“There is no more fitting time and no more fitting man to name it after,” said Arcara, referring to the upcoming 100th anniversary of Jackson’s admission to the bar.

Jackson’s ascension to the Supreme Court began in 1934 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt named him general counsel to the IRS.

From there, he became solicitor general, attorney general and, in 1941, associate justice on the Supreme Court.

He died while serving on the court in 1954, just months after its landmark desegregation ruling, Brown v. Board of Education.

“I don’t think I’d be standing here if it wasn’t for Brown v. Board of Education,” Denise Pease, an African-American and regional administrator for the General Services Administration, said at the ceremony.

At the request of President Harry S. Truman, Jackson took a leave of absence from the bench in 1945 to serve as U.S. chief of counsel for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.

His opening and closing arguments at Nuremberg are widely viewed as among the best courtroom speeches of the past 100 years.