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Brandeis first Jewish Supreme Court justice

On this day (Jan. 28) in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson appointed prominent Boston attorney Louis Dembitz Brandeis to the United States Supreme Court over the bitter opposition – because of the nominee’s alleged “judicial radicalism” – of six former presidents of the American Bar Association and former U.S. president and future U.S. Chief Justice William Howard Taft.

Some of the opposition to Brandeis’ nomination, but not Taft’s, probably was anti-Semitic because the distinguished but increasingly controversial barrister was the first Jew to be nominated, and then serve, on the nation’s highest court. After often rancorous, for the time, Senate confirmation hearings, Brandeis won Senate approval with a vote of 47-22, and took his seat on the bench on June 5, 1916.

Throughout his long and acclaimed tenure (1916-1939) on the U.S. Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis was a consistent advocate of what he called a “living law” (i.e., law that went beyond mere precedent and responded to the social, economic, and political changes in American society that had been caused in large part by the growing concentration of wealth and influence of large corporations and banks during the late 19th and early 20th centuries).

Thus as a “people’s attorney” (as he was, sometimes in derision, often called), he became, even before his appointment to the bench, a trusted adviser to President Wilson and a firm supporter of his “New Freedom” philosophy of protecting the First Amendment rights and the dignity of the common person, of “small, non-intrusive government,” and of opposition to trusts and business monopolies.

Later, during the 1930s, Brandeis became one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s staunchest supporters on the Supreme Court, where he almost invariably supported the New Deal programs advocated by British economist John Maynard Keynes.

However, on one notable occasion, Brandeis voted with the court majority in striking down the controversial National Industrial Recovery Act (Schecter v. U.S., 1935) because that act attempted to regulate intrastate rather than interstate commerce.

During his years on the Supreme Court, Brandeis deservedly gained the reputation as the “great dissenter” (until the late 1930s, the court was overwhelmingly conservative) and as a judicial activist.

Brandeis was born into the family of Adolph and Fredericka Dembitz Brandeis on Nov. 13, 1856, in Louisville, Ky. His formal education included two years of studies in Germany (1873-1875) and a bachelor of law degree and one year of graduate work (1875-1877) at the Harvard Law School. Interestingly, although Brandeis had not reached the law school-required graduation age of 21, the Harvard Corporation passed a special resolution granting him his law degree.

At Harvard, the studious Brandeis graduated first in his class, having compiled an enviable record of high academic achievement. From 1878 to his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1916, Brandeis maintained a busy and exceedingly lucrative law practice in Boston.

In 1891, the prospering lawyer married Alice Goldmark, with whom he had two daughters. In 1912, Brandeis joined the Zionist movement, which worked for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

He retired from the bench on Feb. 13, 1939, but thereafter, until his death on Oct. 5, 1941, in Washington, D.C., continued his work and commitment to education, to world peace, to justice for the individual, and Judaism.

In 1948, Brandeis was commemorated posthumously by the naming of the first Jewish nonsectarian college in the U.S.: Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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