Benjamin Nathan Cardozo was an American jurist who served on the New York Court of Appeals and later as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Cardozo is remembered for his significant influence on the development of American common law in the 20th century, in addition to his philosophy and vivid prose style. Cardozo served on the Supreme Court six years, from 1932 until his death in 1938. Many of his landmark deommon law in the 20th century.
Benjamin Nathan Cardozo and his twin sister Emily were born on May 24, 1870, in New York City to Albert Cardozo and Rebecca Nathan Cardozo, members of the Sephardic Jewish community in New York, whose forebears had fled from Portugal during the Inquisition and had migrated to die New World prior to die American Revolution. Cardozo’s father was a prominent New York judge, forced to resign from the New York Supreme Court in 1872 in the wake of corruption charges associated widi Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. He died when Benjamin was 15, leaving Cardozo, whose mother had died when he was nine, in the care of his older sister Ellen, or “Nellie,” as he called her. The bond between the two siblings, thus cemented when Cardozo was a teenager, would form the chief personal attachment in Cardozo’s life, since he never married.
Cardozo’s early education included tutoring by the famous author of rags-to-richcs stories for children, Horatio Alger, who came to the Cardozo home and taught the future justice and his siblings. Cardozo enrolled in Columbia University at the age ol 15, graduating in 1889. Thereafter he continued work on a master’s degree at Columbia, which he received in 1891, while also attending Columbia Law School. The law school had only recently expanded its curriculum from the traditional two years of study to three. However, Cardozo decided he was adequately equipped to practice law without attending the final year and receiving a degree.
He was admitted to the New York bar in the fall of 1891, and at the age of 21 he joined the firm of Donohue, Newcombe, and Cardozo, where his brother Albert was a partner and where his father had once practiced. After the deadi of Richard Newcombe and the departure from the firm of Charles Donohue, die two brothers continued practicing together until Albert’s death in 1909.
Benjamin Cardozo never served the role of apprentice so common for many lawyers. From the beginning of his practice he handled cases for clients on his own, gravitating early on to the more studious work of arguing cases on appeal rather than trying cases in court. Within a few years other lawyers began referring appellate cases to die young attorney, and Cardozo showed himself precociously gifted in preparing briefs and arguing cases before appellate judges. Quiet and reserved, he found that this work suited him more than the rough and tumble of trial law. After two decades of such labor, Cardozo had won a reputation as a lawyer’s lawyer. His migration from the practice of law to the judicial bench therefore seemed natural when it occurred in 1913. That year he was elected by a thin margin on the Democratic ticket to the New York State Supreme Court—the court from which his father had resigned some 35 years previously. Almost immediately, diough, New York governor Martin Glynn appointed Cardozo to fill a vacancy on the state’s highest court, die New York Court of Appeals, in 1914. There for nearly 20 years he established a reputation as one of the country’s leading judges, first as an associate judge on the state court and then, beginning in 1926, as its chief judge.
When Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Court’s great liberal, announced his retirement at the beginning of 1932, Benjamin Cardozo was at the height of his professional power in the chief seat of the New York Court of Appeals. Many observers argued that President Herbert Hoover should appoint some progressive jurist of similar stature to replace Holmes, a legal titan in his own right, and that Cardozo was a logical successor for Holmes. There were, though, numerous considerations counting against such an appointment. Cardozo was a Democrat, while the president was Republican. Cardozo was a New Yorker, and the Court already had two other justices from New York (Stone and Hughes). Finally, Cardozo was Jewish, and another Jewish justice, Louis Brandéis, already sat on the high court. But support for Cardozo was overwhelming, and the president nominated him as an associate justice on February 15, 1932. Easily confirmed by the Senate, Benjamin Nathan Cardozo took his seat on the Supreme Court on March 14, 1932.
By fall 1937 Cardozo’s health had taken a sharp turn downward. He had suffered a heart attack in the summer of 1935, from which he had gradually recovered. The second week in December 1937, though—the week that he announced die Court’s decision in Palko—he had another heart attack, followed by shingles. Although he gradually seemed to pull out of danger, shortly after the new year began he had a stroke. In the spring he was encouraged to stay at a friend’s home in Port Chester, New York. There he died, on July 9, 1938.
Cardozo was an active member of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York. He took a great interest in Jewish education and was involved in the activities of the Jewish Educational Association. He ardently believed in Americanism and remained aloof from Zionism in its early stages, but events in Europe during the 1930s led him to see the value of Palestine as a haven for the oppressed of his people.
In his seat on the nation’s preeminent state court, Cardozo had a profound influence on the development of 20th-century American law, especially in the area of common-law cases. The common law consists of those legal doctrines established not by legislatures but by the accumulation of judicial decisions. Cardozo earned nationwide fame as a judge able to shape the law to the needs of contemporary society without seeming to shatter its existing form. “Justice,” he would write during this period, “is not to be taken by storm. She is to be wooed by slow advances.” In this wooing Cardozo excelled. Progressive yet restrained, his opinions stretched legal doctrines to accommodate modernity widiout seeming to violate their spirit. Many ol Ills decisions had an extraordinary impact on the development of the law and some continue to be the object of study by law students aspiring to grasp the elements of legal reasoning.
Soon after arriving on the New York court, for example, Cardozo wrote the opinion in MacPherson v. Buick Motor Company (1916), one of the most important cases in the history of product liability law. Prior to MacPherson, individuals injured by a defectively manufactured product often had no legal recourse against the manufacturer of that product because they had no contractual relationship, or no “privity,” with the manufacturer. Consumers normally buy their products from dealers rather than from manufacturers, and the doctrine of “privity” shielded manufacturers from claims that they had built their products carelessly. In MacPherson, however, Cardozo argued that the manufacturer of a defective product should know that the product would eventually fall into the hands of a consumer who might be injured by it, and that this knowledge was sufficient cause for holding the manufacturer accountable for defective products. Courts and legislatures around the country soon followed Cardozo’s reasoning. Generations of law students have also studied Cardozo’s opinion in Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. (1928), which refused to hold a railroad liable for a passenger who was injured on a railway platform, because the nature of her injury had been too unusual for the railroad to have foreseen and taken steps to prevent.
To his growing reputation as a judge, Cardozo added that of legal scholar. Invited by the Yale Law School to deliver a series of lectures there, Cardozo eventually published them as The Nature of the Judicial Process (1921) and The Growth of the Law (1924). Toward the end of the 1920s, he lectured at Columbia University and published the results as The Paradoxes of Legal Sciences (1928). In these scholarly works, especially The Nature of the Judicial Process, Cardozo attempted to explain how judges decided cases. Many cases, he believed, had only one plausible result. But some involved situations where the case might reasonably be decided either of two conflicting ways and where the judicial resolution of the question might have substantial impact on the future course of the law. Cardozo was frank about the significance of this later circumstance: Judges did not simply find the law, they made the law. “Here,” he declared, “come into play . . . balancing of judgment. . . testing and sorting of considerations of analogy and logic and utility and fairness. . . . Here it is that the judge assumes the function of a lawgiver. ... I have grown to see that the process in its highest reaches is not discovery but creation. . . .”
He has been described as a charming, lovable man with a highly sensitive nature and a scholar with a brilliant mind.