This Day in Jewish History

1856: Louis D. Brandeis Is Born

The first Jew to be named to the Supreme Court, Brandeis was born in Louisville, Kentucky.

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On November 13, 1856, American jurist Louis Dembitz Brandeis was born. Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served as an associate justice from 1916 to 1939.

Brandeis was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of secularized, German-speaking Jewish parents who had immigrated from Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After education in Louisville and for several years in Germany, where his family briefly relocated during an economic downturn in 1872, he entered Harvard Law School in 1875. He graduated with the best grade-point average in the school’s history, a record that is said to have stood for eight decades.

Brandeis and a colleague, Samuel Warren, opened a law firm in Boston, and he pursued a private career until his appointment to the High Court in 1916. He was distinguished by his concern over the growing power of economic monopolies in the United States, and a general desire to pursue social justice. He was offended by conspicuous consumption (his friends owned yachts, he was satisfied with a canoe), feared the manipulative power of advertising, fought to limit the power of corporate trusts, and spoke of his belief in the power of the law to help in “the attainment of liberty” – hence his concern, as he declared, that “we hear much of the ‘corporate lawyer,’ and far too little of the ‘people’s lawyer.’” One landmark case he pursued over several years was fighting the attempt of the New Haven Railroad, controlled by financier J.P. Morgan, to take over the Boston and Maine Railroad. He prevailed after a nine-year struggle.

Brandeis became an advisor to Woodrow Wilson after the latter became president in 1913 – the two shared a similar opposition to business trusts – and it was Wilson who named him to the Supreme Court three years later. So great was opposition to the nomination of the “radical” Brandeis that the U.S. Senate decided to hold his confirmation hearings in public for the first time ever.

Brandeis, though he remained a secular Jew, apparently became interested in Zionism through his friendship with the British-born Zionist leader Jacob de Haas. He accepted the leadership of a major American Zionist organization in 1914, and spoke on behalf of the cause around the United States, openly rejecting the idea that belief in the need for a Jewish state opened American Jews to the charge of dual loyalty. After a dispute over administrative issues with World Zionist Organization leader Chaim Weizmann, Brandeis withdrew from active involvement in the movement, but during continued to push for open immigration to British-controlled Palestine and also helped raise money for the Jewish population there.

On the court, he was distinguished by landmark rulings dealing with issues of privacy, free speech, economic centralization, and states’ rights, and many of the concepts of jurisprudence he pioneered continue to guide the American system to this day.

Brandeis retired from the court in 1939 and died in 1941. Legal scholar Wayne McIntosh described his greatness as going far beyond his career as a great Supreme Court justice, whose “concepts of privacy and free speech ultimately, if posthumously, resulted in virtual legal sea changes that continue to resonate even today.” Brandeis, he declared, was no less “a social reformer, legal innovator, labor champion, and Zionist leader.”