Louis Brandeis

Louis D. Brandeis
Louis D. Brandeis

Louis Dembitz Brandeis (November 13, 1856 - October 3, 1941) was an important American litigator, Justice, advocate of privacy, and developer of the Brandeis Brief. In addition, he helped lead the American Zionist movement. He was appointed by Woodrow Wilson to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1916 (sworn-in on June 5), and served until 1939. He was the first Jew to hold that office. Before his appointment to the Supreme Court, he was associated with the progressive wing of the United States Democratic Party, and published a notable book in support of competition rather than monopoly in business.


Early life

Brandeis was born in Louisville, Kentucky. His family came to the United States from Prague following the failed revolution of 1848, settling in Louisville. Brandeis graduated from high school at age 14 with the highest honors. In 1872, Brandeis went to Europe, first to travel with his family, and then for two years of school at Dresden. Returning in 1875, Brandeis entered Harvard, graduating from its law school in 1877 at the head of his class. Brandeis became an attorney in Boston, achieving financial success and taking an active role in progressive causes.

The Brandeis Brief

In the 1908 case Muller v. Oregon, Brandeis, acting as a litigator, collected empirical data from hundreds of sources. In what became known as the "Brandeis Brief", the report provided social authorities on the issue of the impact of long working hours on women. This was the first instance in the United States that social science had been used in law and changed the direction of the Supreme Court and of U.S. law. The Brandeis Brief became the model for future Supreme Court presentations.

Supreme Court Justice

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Overcoming significant opposition to his appointment, Brandeis became one of the most influential and respected Supreme Court Justices in United States history. His votes and opinions envisioned the greater protections for individual rights and greater flexibility for government in economic regulation that would prevail in later courts. In his widely-cited dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States (1928), Brandeis argued, as he had in an influential law review article prior to being nominated to the Court that the Constitution protected a "right of privacy," calling it "the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men." Brandeis' position in Olmstead became the law of the land in 1967's Katz v. United States, which overturned Olmstead. Additionally, Brandeis joined with fellow justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in calling for greater Constitutional protection for speech, dissenting from the Court's upholding of a conviction for aiding the Communist Party in Whitney v. California (1927), a dissent that foreshadows the greater speech protections enforced by the Warren Court. Brandeis also vigorously opposed the Supreme Court's doctrine of "liberty of contract," which often acted to shield business from government regulation on the long recognized right of employers and employees to freely contract with each other. Liberty of contract was a long recognized Constitutional liberty found in the "due process" protections of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, first announced by the noted English jurist Lord Coke. In New State Ice Co. v. Leibmann (1932), Brandeis in dissent famously urged that the states should be able to be "laboratories" for innovative government action, in the face of the Supreme Court's frequent invalidation of state measures regulating business. Brandeis's views on "liberty of contract" would prevail in the long run, culminating in the seminal Supreme Court case of West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937). However, some people believe that the views on competition that Brandeis articulated in New State Ice, that the state must regulate competition because competition inevitably leads to monopoly, would today be rejected by mainstream economists and policymakers, and would likely be considered socialism. Others feel that his statements on this case don't favor any particular economic system; rather, they describe a proper structural relationship between the courts, the legislatures and the Constitution. He was urging deference to legislative judgments when fundamental individual liberties are not seriously threatened. He was showing a healthy respect for the vertical (federal vs. states vs. individual) and horizontal (judicial vs. legislative) separations of power.

As an octogenarian, Brandeis was deeply offended by his friend Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing scheme of 1937, with its implication that elderly justices needed special help to carry out their duties. Brandeis retired from the Court in 1939, to be replaced by William O. Douglas.

Zionist leader

Brandeis also became the most prominent American Zionist. Zionism was the movement to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Not raised religious, Brandeis became involved in Zionism through a 1912 conversation with Jacob de Haas, editor of a Boston Jewish weekly and a follower of Theodore Herzl. Brandeis became active in the Federation of American Zionists as a result. With the outbreak of World War I, the Zionist movement's headquarters in Berlin became ineffectual, and American Jewry had to assume larger responsibility for the Zionist movement. When the Provisional Executive Committee for Zionist Affairs was established in New York, Brandeis accepted unanimous election to be its head. In this position from 1914 to 1918, Brandeis was the leader of American Zionism. Brandeis embarked on a speaking tour in the fall and winter of 1914-1915 to support the Zionist cause. Brandeis emphasized the goal of self-determination and freedom for Jews through the development of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and the compatibility of Zionism and American patriotism.

Brandeis brought his influence in the Woodrow Wilson administration to bear in the negotiations leading up to the Balfour Declaration. Brandeis split with the European branch of Zionism, led by Chaim Weizmann, and resigned a leadership role in 1921. He retained membership, however, and remained active in Zionism until the end of his life.

Brandeis died in 1941. Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, was named after Louis Brandeis, as was the Brandeis Award. The University of Louisville features the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law, also named after him. The remains of both Justice Brandeis and his wife are interred beneath the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville.

Preceded by:
Joseph Rucker Lamar
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
June 5, 1916February 13, 1939
Succeeded by:
William O. Douglas

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