Louis Brandeis Biography
Born: November 13, 1856
Died: October 5, 1941
American Supreme Court justice
Louis Brandeis was a lawyer who dedicated his life to public service, earning the nickname the "people's attorney." As an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, he tried to balance the developing powers of modern government and society with the defending of individual freedoms.
Early life and education
Louis Dembitz Brandeis was born on November 13, 1856, in Louisville, Kentucky, to Adolph and Fredericka Dembitz Brandeis. His parents were Bohemian Jews who had come to America after the revolutionary movement of 1848 to create an independent Bohemia failed and was crushed by Austria. The Brandeis family was educated, and they believed in strengthening the processes of democracy in order to protect the common man's dignity and right to self-development.
Brandeis lived and studied in Europe for three years after graduating from Louisville public schools at the age of fifteen. In 1875, at the age of eighteen, Brandeis entered Harvard Law School without a college degree, achieving one of the most outstanding records in the school's history. At the same time he tutored fellow students in order to earn money, which was necessary because of
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Years of public service
In 1879 Brandeis began a partnership with his classmate Samuel D. Warren. Together they wrote one of the most famous law articles in history, "The Right to Privacy," published in the December 1890 Harvard Law Review. In it Brandeis stated the view he later repeated in the Supreme Court case of Olmstead v. United States (1928): he argued that the makers of the Constitution, as evidence of their effort to protect Americans, intended for people to have "the right to be let alone … the right most valued by civilized men." During this stage of his career, Brandeis spent much time helping the Harvard Law School. Though he declined an offer to become an assistant professor, in 1886 he helped found the Harvard Law School Association, a group of alumni (graduates of the school), and he served for many years as its secretary.
By 1890 Brandeis was earning good money as a lawyer and was able to serve, without pay, in support of various public causes. When a fight arose, for example, over preservation of the Boston subway system, he helped save it. He also helped lead the opposition to the New Haven Railroad's attempt to remain the sole provider of transportation in New England. He worked to change Massachusetts' liquor laws in an attempt to prevent liquor dealers from bribing lawmakers rather than complying with the laws. The Massachusetts State Legislature's adoption of a savings-bank life insurance system was the result of his investigation of the problems of existing insurance programs.
Brandeis also took part in the effort to bring legal protections to industrial workers, and as part of this effort he contributed a major idea to the Supreme Court legal process. In 1908, while defending an Oregon law that established fair wages and hours for women laborers, Brandeis introduced what came to be known as the "Brandeis brief." In the brief he took into consideration the various factors that had led to the passing of the law. Many lawyers followed the Brandeis brief. In their arguments they presented scientific evidence and expert opinion on the social problems of the day that were reflected in court cases.
Appointment to the Supreme Court
President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) offered Brandeis a position in his Cabinet in 1913, but the Boston lawyer preferred to remain simply a counselor to the president. Brandeis continued his investigations into the growing concentration of wealth in large corporations and such effects on democracy. In 1914 he published Other People's Money, and How the Bankers Use It, in which he set down his views in opposition to corporate growth.
Wilson's nomination of Brandeis to the Supreme Court on January 28, 1916, started a dirty political fight. Six former presidents of the American Bar Association and former president of the United States William Howard Taft (1857–1930) criticized Brandeis for his "radical" (extreme) political views. Some anti-Semitism (prejudice against Jewish people) was involved, as Brandeis was the first Jew ever nominated for America's highest court. Finally, however, the fight was won in the Senate, and Brandeis took his seat on June 5, 1916, where he served with distinction until his retirement on February 13, 1939.
Brandeis often joined his fellow justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841–1935) in disagreeing with the Court's willingness to make judgments about fiscal (economic) and social policy that opposed those of individual states. Also with Holmes Brandeis bravely defended civil liberties throughout this era. When he did approve of wide use of state powers, it was only in the interest of furthering individual self-fulfilment. He also rejected the ability of states to infringe upon (take away from) a citizen's liberty. Two examples are the Olmstead case, which involved wiretapping, and Whitney v. California, in which Brandeis opposed a California law prohibiting free speech.
Brandeis married Alice Goldmark in 1891, and they had two daughters. Part of his personal life was his commitment to fellow Jews. He became a leading supporter of the movement to develop an independent Jewish nation in Palestine. Another of Brandeis's great interests was the building up of strong regional schools as a means of strengthening local areas against the threat of national control of education. To this end, beginning in 1924, he helped plan and develop the law school and general library of the University of Louisville.
Brandeis died on October 5, 1941. His commitments to justice, education, and Judaism were honored several years later in the founding of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
For More Information
Freedman, Suzanne. Louis Brandeis: The People's Justice. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1996.
Gal, Allon. Brandeis of Boston. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.
Strum, Philippa. Louis D. Brandeis: Justice for the People. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Louis D. Brandeis: A Life. By Melvin Urofsky. Pantheon Books; 976 pages; $40. Buy from Amazon.com
IN SEPTEMBER 1905 an overseer at a laundry in Portland, Oregon, made a woman, who happened to be a labour activist, work overtime in breach of a state law that no female should have to work more than ten hours a day. The worker sued, and the owner of the laundry, one Curt Muller, was fined $10. Muller appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, claiming that the Oregon statute violated the “due process” clause of the 14th amendment. The National Consumers League briefed a successful Boston lawyer, Louis Brandeis, to defend the state's protective legislation.
Brandeis realised that his main difficulty was that the Supreme Court, with a conservative majority, had decided only three years earlier that a New York state law forbidding long hours in a bakery was in breach of the constitution. His strategy must be to show that, although states might not intervene in the contractual relation between employer and employee, the state government did have, under its police power, the right to protect the health and safety of its citizens. He wrote the first of what came to be called “Brandeis briefs”. It was 113 pages long. Only three pages discussed the law, including the previous case. The rest argued from what Brandeis called “facts of common knowledge”, drawn mainly from British and European health reports, that Oregon was simply protecting women's health.
Before this, American thinking about the relationship between the state and society had been dominated by what was called “legal classicism”. Its two pillars were the sanctity of contract and “substantive due process”. This latter, a concept originally intended to guarantee the rights of newly emancipated slaves, was used to protect the rights of private property from interference by the state.
Brandeis was not the first American jurist to challenge the exploitation of legal pedantry in the service of reactionary politics. Years earlier Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes pleaded that “the life of the law has been not logic but experience”. Others in the early 20th century saw that the law must reflect the new circumstances of an urban, industrialised America where workers were playthings in the hands of giant corporations.
Brandeis, however, showed how it could be done: by deploying solid masses of sociological fact (a method that led, for example, to the 1954 Brown ruling that racial segregation was unconstitutional). He served on the Supreme Court for close to a quarter of a century and with liberal colleagues established a new sociological jurisprudence, responsive to the changing realities of ordinary life. Much of the legal conflict of the past few years in the United States has resulted from the efforts of a new generation of conservatives to reverse the work of Brandeis and his companions and disciples on the court.
Melvin Urofsky's lapidary new biography is a rich study of a remarkable life. Brandeis was born in 1856, into a family of non-religious Jews a few years after they emigrated from Germany to the United States. After shining at the Harvard Law School, he set up as a commercial lawyer and within a few years was financially secure for life.
Increasingly he found himself defending what he saw as the public interest against what were known as “the interests”. He fought an elevated-railway company and he campaigned for savings banks to be allowed to provide life insurance for poor people. He defended unions and with great courage challenged the efforts of the Morgan “interests” to build a rail monopoly in New England. “I am rapidly becoming a Socialist,” he exclaimed. “What the bankers leave undone their lawyer minions supply.”
He was, though, no socialist. He was in many ways typical of the Progressives, middle- and upper-class people who were alarmed at what the growth of metropolitan cities and huge corporations were doing to a rustic, egalitarian America. One of the keys to Brandeis's philosophy was a very un-socialist horror of bigness, in unions as well as corporations. He was a pragmatist, one who instinctively reached for compromise.
Brandeis was never a practising Jew, but he was a passionate convert to Zionism. He understood that for many American Jews, America itself was their Zion yet his services to the Jewish homeland in Palestine were great. Like many Zionists, he was utterly unsympathetic to the Arabs. “As against the Bedouins”, he wrote, “our pioneers are in a position not unlike the American settlers against the Indians.”
This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition