Louis Brandeis - Associate Justice, Supreme Court

Louis Brandeis-Associate Justice, Supreme Court

Louis Dembitz Brandeis (1856–1941) was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.  A strong supporter of civil rights, he was known as "The People's Attorney."

Still considered one of America’s leading jurists, Brandeis was born in Louisville, Kentucky to Jewish parents who left Europe for a better life in America. Extremely intelligent, Louis was able to start law school without an undergraduate degree.

We learn more about him from Brandeis University (named in his honor):

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 in the aftermath of those European revolutionary movements of 1848 that had sought to establish liberal political institutions and to strengthen the processes of democracy so as to safeguard the dignity and potential for self-development of the common man.

In 1875, at the age of 18, Brandeis entered the Harvard Law School without a formal college degree; he achieved one of the most outstanding records in its history. At the same time he tutored fellow students in order to earn money (necessary because of his father's loss of fortune in the Panic of 1873). Although Brandeis was not the required age of 21, the Harvard Corporation passed a special resolution granting him a bachelor of law degree in 1877. After a further year of legal study at Harvard, he was admitted to the bar.

Before he became a Supreme Court Associate Justice, Brandeis was a fighter for the rights of people:

As an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Louis Dembitz Brandeis (1856-1941) tried to reconcile the developing powers of modern government and society with the maintenance of individual liberties and opportunities for personal development.

As the United States entered the 20th century, many men became concerned with trying to equip government so as to deal with the excesses and inequities fostered by the industrial development of the 19th century. States passed laws trying to regulate utility rates and insurance manipulations and established minimum-wage and maximum-hour laws. Louis Brandeis was one of the most important Americans involved in this effort, first as a publicly minded lawyer and, after 1916, as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Woodrow Wilson nominated Brandeis as a Supreme Court Justice in 1916, the year before America entered WWI. He was the first Jewish person nominated to the high court, and his nomination involved political fighting:

Wilson's nomination of Brandeis to the Supreme Court on Jan. 28, 1916, aroused a dirty political fight. Six former presidents of the American Bar Association and former president of the United States William Howard Taft denounced Brandeis for his allegedly radical political views. Some anti-Semitism was involved, for 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 Feb. 13, 1939.

It was Louis Brandeis who, as a Supreme Court Justice, influenced Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in key cases involving the civil rights of American citizens:

Brandeis often joined his colleague Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in dissenting against the Court's willingness to pose its judgments about economic and social policy against those of individual states. Also with Holmes, Brandeis bravely defended civil liberties throughout this era. If he did uphold wide use of state powers, it was only in the service of furthering individual self-fulfillment; he also rejected incursions of a state upon a citizen's liberty. Two examples are the Olmstead case (already noted), involving wiretapping, and Whitney v. California, in which Brandeis opposed a California law suppressing free speech.

Throughout his legal life, Brandeis supported education—particularly local schools:

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 centralization. To this end, beginning in 1924, he helped formulate 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 commemorated several years later in the founding of Brandeis University.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Jan 28, 2020

Media Credits

Image, courtesy U.S. Supreme Court.


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