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Louis Dembitz Brandeis


Louis Dembitz Brandeis was an American lawyer and associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1916 to 1939.


He was born in Louisville, Kentucky, to Jewish immigrant parents from Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic), who raised him in a secular home.


At the age of 16, Louis Brandeis gained entrance into the Annen-Realschule in Dresden, Germany, where he proved to be an excellent student. When his family returned to the United States in 1875, he enrolled in Harvard Law School, where, in the course of his two years of study, he earned the highest grades ever awarded by the school. The law school nearly declined to graduate Brandeis, though, since he was, at 20 years of age, a year younger than the normally required 21 years. But the school made an exception for Brandeis, and he stayed on another year for additional graduate work.


Therafter, he returned to St. Louis to work for a law firm there, only to find himself restless for the legal environs of New England. Thus, when his classmate Samuel Warren suggested they form a partnership in Boston, Brandeis leaped at the opportunity. Beginning in 1879, the two soon established a prosperous practice, representing mostly small and medium-sized businesses.

The following years saw Brandeis develop a reputation as a lawyer who knew as much about his clients’ businesses as he did about the law. This fact centered legal practice would come to characterize much of his approach to the law. Not content to ponder abstract legal principles in a vacuum, Brandeis excelled at plunging into the thicket of factual detail and the sociological background of his clients’ problems, often becoming a general adviser to them, not only about the law but about the needs of their businesses.

The last decade of the 19th century found Brandeis active on a variety of fronts, including the matrimonial one. On March 23, 1891, he married his second cousin, Alice Goldmark, with whom he had two daughters, Susan and Elizabedi. With his partner, Samuel Warren, he also wrote a seminal legal article titled “T he Right to Privacy,” published in the Harvard Law Review in 1890. This article, as much as any other scholarly work, formed the foundation for the recognition of a right to privacy in a wide variety of legal contexts. Throughout most of this decade, Brandeis also waged war against the monopolistic aspirations of the Boston Elevated Railway. His involvement in this public issue was one of the first of many occasions when he applied his legal talents for the public good, often without receiving compensation. In fact, Brandeis contributed so much of his professional time to such cases that he eventually believed it necessary to reimburse his law firm for the value of the time he dispensed free of charge on public matters, laboring, as he would become known, as “the people’s lawyer.” By the turn of the century, Louis Brandeis had already achieved prominence as a progres-sive reformer. He supported unions as a necessary counterweight to the growing power of corporations. In 1908 he made a famous appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the National Consumers’ League to defend an Oregon law setting maximum hours for female workers in Mueller v. Oregon (1908). Since the Court had held only three years previously in Lochner v. New York (1905) that a maximum-hours law for bakers unconstitutionally infringed on the right of contract, Brandeis faced formidable obstacles in persuading the Court to uphold the Oregon law. He eventually prevailed, however, partly on the strength of an innovative brief that devoted a mere two pages to discussion of the applicable legal precedents and the remainder to a detailed presentation of sociological data supporting his contention that excessive work hours were harmful to women. This kind of brief, later emulated by other lawyers, came to be known as a “Brandéis brief.”

When President Woodrow Wilson nominated Louis Brandéis to the Supreme Court in 1916 to replace Justice Joseph R. Lamar, it was inevitable that corporate interests would rally to oppose the appointment of “the people’s lawyer. ” The battle over his confirmation raged for four months, but the Senate eventually confirmed Brandéis as the Court’s first Jewish justice on June 1, 1916, by a vote of 47-22. He took his seat on the Court four days later and began what would be a 22-year career of service on the Supreme Court.

By the end of the 1930s, Brandeis was 83 years old and found the responsibilities of his position increasingly difficult to bear. He retired on February 13, 1939, and died of a heart attack two years later on October 5, 1941, in Washington, D. C.


  • In 1907 established savings bank insurance in Massachusetts.


In the earlier part of his life, he had no Jewish affiliation. He found his identification with Judaism in its emphasis on justice. This accorded with the Reform Judaism of his day, with its exclusive concentration on ethical values and its belief in a universalistic. Jewish mission. His first association with the Jewish masses came in 1910 when he arbitrated the garment workers’ strike in New York and was impressed by the Jewish working classes and their moral standards.

Shortly before World War I, he was attracted to Zionism and in 1914 became chairman of the Provisional Committee for General Zionist Affairs in the United States, which meant the leadership of U.S. Zionism. He rejected accusations of dual loyalty and advocated what came to be known as cultural pluralism.


In 1914 Brandéis became the leader of the American Zionist movement, and he would remain active in this cause for the rest of his life. Brandéis supported the idea of a Palestinian home for his people, in part as a kind of laboratory in which his views about the value of participatory democracy might be given a concrete setting. The perfect state, he believed, should be small, democratic, and agrarian; and a Palestinian Jewish state offered the possibility of realizing this ideal. In Zionism, Brandeis’s political faith in democracy found expression. Democracy, one person declared of Brandéis— who was not a practicing Jew—was for him “not a political program. It is a religion.”

Although 454 of the 528 opinions Justice Brandéis wrote were for the Court’s majority, he often found himself dissenting in important cases, and many of his dissents would later become law. For example, he soon found himself at odds with conservatives on the Court who cast a suspicious constitutional eye on a variety of federal and state laws regulating economic matters. These conservatives, who often commanded a majority' on the Court, viewed such laws as unwarranted intrusions upon sacrosanct individual contract or property' rights. Brandéis, however, thought that the federal and state governments generally had to be free to experiment with new legal solutions for the problems created by 20th-century industrialism. He preferred, in tire main, to see such experimentation come from the state level, since he distrusted the accumulation of excessive power by the federal government as much as he distrusted its accumulation by corporations. Nevertheless, he generally practiced judicial restraint in reviewing economic regulations, including those passed by the federal government.


Quotations: • The greatest menace to freedom is an inert people.

• Order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment; it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; fear breeds repression; repression breeds hate; hate menaces stable government.

• My sympathies are with those Jews who are working for a revival of a Jewish state in Palestine. My sympathy with the Zionist movement rests primarily upon the noble idealism which underlies it and the conviction that a great people, stirred by enthusiams for such an ideal, must bear an important part in the betterment of the world. [1910]

• Every American Jew who aids in advanc¬ing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels that neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will be a better man and a better American for doing so.


Brandeis often adopted a didactic approach and was regarded as a great teacher. To some, he was even of a prophetic nature and Roosevelt called him Isaiah.


In 1890, Brandeis became engaged to Alice Goldmark, of New York. He was then 34 years of age and had previously found little time for courtship. Alice was the daughter of Joseph Goldmark, a physician, the brother of the composer Karl Goldmark, who had emigrated to America from Austria-Hungary after the collapse of the Revolution of 1848. They were married on March 23, 1891, at the home of her parents in New York City in a civil ceremony. The newlywed couple moved into a modest home in Boston's Beacon Hill district and had two daughters, Susan, born in 1893, and Elizabeth, born in 1896.

Alice Goldmark - United States

Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson - friend of Louis Brandeis