Philip Elman, 81, a Federal Trade Commission member who frequently harangued his peers and corporate-interest "rascals" in the 1960s for what he called "shielding businessmen from the risks of competition," died of respiratory and renal failure Nov. 30 at Sibley Memorial Hospital. He had lived in Bethesda since 1951.
When he retired after nine years in 1970, a Washington Post editorial lauded Mr. Elman as "one of the best men to serve on any of the agencies in recent years" at a time the commission was viewed roundly as kowtowing to the industries it was supposed to oversee in the public interest.
Mr. Elman had a number of victories, including getting fellow commissioners to rule for health warning labels on cigarette packs and the banning of cigarette advertising on television and radio programs. Congress later amended the ruling, confining legislation to labels on packs and only later to advertisements.
By the end of his term, Mr. Elman had soured on the FTC and believed a solution was to appoint a single commissioner responsible to the president and Congress, each of which could remove the appointee. "This would permit the public to hold both the president and Congress accountable for an agency's continued failures or poor performance," he told the American Bar Association in 1971.
President John F. Kennedy first appointed Mr. Elman to fill a term in 1961, and he served a full seven years after President Lyndon B. Johnson reappointed him in 1963. During that time, Mr. Elman criticized members of Congress for making "subtle, insidious and destructive" calls to trade commissioners on behalf of companies, hoping the FTC would approve mergers.
Others on the commission, which a writer once called "a rest station for the politically faithful," denied that they made decisions based on congressional pressure. Kennedy was said to have appointed Mr. Elman because he was not registered with a political party -- no more than three of the seven commissioners could be from the same party -- but still was sympathetic to the administration's causes.
"It was a way of appointing a fourth liberal without running foul of this rule," said Richard A. Posner, an assistant to Mr. Elman from 1963 to 1965 and now the chief judge of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Posner added: "He saw his mission as being to simply improve the intellectual quality of the Federal Trade Commission and to help the commission do the antitrust and consumer tasks that Congress had originally envisioned for it back in 1914. The FTC had become a terrible backwater."
Largely, Mr. Elman was frustrated by the slow pace of rulings, companies' delay tactics when FTC rulings were unfavorable to them. In a widely publicized case at the time, the FTC ordered the makers of Geritol pain relievers to cease and desist after an 11-year investigation of "deceptive" advertising practices.
Mr. Elman's career at the FTC began after 17 years as an assistant to the solicitor general of the Justice Department, where he worked extensively on desegregation cases. His role at Justice and close friendship with his mentor, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, would cause some consternation among law experts decades later.
Mr. Elman said in an oral history project at Columbia University law school in 1987 that he discussed compromise language with Frankfurter before the Supreme Court rendered the landmark school desegregation lawsuit Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Discussions among Supreme Court justices are considered confidential, but at the time, it was not eyebrow-raising.
Mr. Elman became the principal author of the Justice Department's friend-of-the-court brief in Brown v. Board, but he maintained that his talks with Frankfurter occurred before the department filed the brief. "Frankfurter asked him how [the court] can write this so the good guys can win," recalled Mr. Elman's son Peter.
Otherwise, Mr. Elman argued, the justices could have left the decision to Congress at a time it was "filibustering every civil-rights effort."
Mr. Elman was a native of Paterson, N.J., and a graduate of what was then City College of New York. After receiving a law degree from Harvard University in 1939, Mr. Elman clerked for Frankfurter from 1941 to 1942 and in 1956 edited his papers, "Of Law and Men."
After leaving the FTC, Mr. Elman was a visiting law professor at Georgetown University until 1976 and the University of Hawaii law school from 1984 to 1993. He had "of counsel" status with the old Wald, Harkrader & Ross law firm in Washington from 1971 to 1984 and was a volunteer mediator at D.C. Superior Court from 1985 to 1993.
Mr. Elman was a member of the American Law Institute and Phi Beta Kappa.
In 1967, he received a Rockefeller Public Service Award, overseen by Princeton University.
A son, Joseph, died in 1996.
Survivors include his wife of 52 years, Ella Marie Elman of Bethesda; two sons, Peter, of Oakland, Calif., and Tony, of Berkeley, Calif.; a brother; and two grandchildren.