Louis Brandeis’ illustrious legal career, culminating with the US Supreme Court, had incredibly humble beginnings.
The man who would help shape the New Deal era of politics was born November 13, 1856, in Kentucky, the son of Jewish immigrants from Bohemia.
Brandeis was a graduate of Harvard Law School, going on to create his first law firm, Warren and Brandeis. From early on, Brandeis was passionate about civic causes, fighting railroad monopolies, working for labor laws, and taking a stand against big corporations and mass consumerism.
Some of his greatest achievements have had a lasting effect on America. He helped create the Federal Reserve System and was part of the brainstorming process to put together the Federal Trade Commission. And his Brandeis Brief, a now famous legal motion, used expert testimony from individuals not in the law profession, forever changing the way lawyers present evidence.
It was this commitment to advocacy that earned Brandeis nicknames like the “People’s Lawyer” and “Robin Hood of the Law.”
On January 29, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson stunned America, recommending Brandeis to become a justice on the US Supreme Court. The nomination was one of the most contested in history.
Justice William Douglas wrote in explanation: “Brandeis was a militant crusader for social justice whoever his opponent might be. He was dangerous not only because of his brilliance, his arithmetic, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible. . . [and] the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.”
The nomination was confirmed, however, and Justice Brandeis went on to give a series of famous defenses on freedom of speech and the right to privacy, in cases like Gilbert v. Minnesota, Whitney v. California, and Olmstead v. United States.
In the 1930’s, Brandeis was key in censuring some of the more extreme ideas proposed under the New Deal. Significantly, he spoke on behalf of the unanimous justices in declaring the Frazier-Lemke Act unconstitutional, stating private property cannot be taken over without compensation, and also declared the National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional.
Outside the courtroom, Brandeis was also a staunch Zionist, becoming active in the Federation of American Zionists, and serving as president of the Provisional Executive Committee for Zionist Affairs.
“Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with Patriotism. Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they are inconsistent. A man is a better citizen of the United States for being also a loyal citizen of his state, and of his city; or for being loyal to his college…. Every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels that neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so,” he once said.
Brandeis died October 5, 1941. He served on the Supreme Court for 33 years, leaving a lasting mark on the American judicial system. His name graces a multitude of memorials, sites and institutions across the world, perhaps most notably Brandeis University, an esteemed private research university.