1932: Second Jew Appointed to U.S. Supreme Court

New York native Benjamin Nathan Cardozo took over the seat of retiring Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice  Benjamin N. Cardozo
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo Credit: Wikipedia

On February 24, 1932, the United States Senate approved unanimously the nomination of Benjamin N. Cardozo as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He was appointed by President Herbert Hoover to take the seat of the retiring Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and joining Louis D. Brandeis, became the second Jew to serve on the court. At the time, Senator Clarence Dill, of Washington State, called the appointment “the finest act of [Hoover’s] career as president.”

Benjamin Nathan Cardozo was born in New York on May 24, 1870, together with his twin sister Emily. His father, Albert Jacob Cardozo, and mother, the former Rebecca Washington Nathan, were both were descendants of Portuguese-Jewish families that had arrived in America from England before the War of Independence. He was named for his mother’s brother, Benjamin Nathan, a prominent Wall Street financier who was mysteriously murdered shortly before his nephew’s birth. The poet and social activist Emma Lazarus was a cousin, as was Annie Nathan Meyer, a founder of Barnard College. The family was active in Congregation Shearith Israel, where Cardozo retained a seat until the end of his life, though he became a non-practicing Jew after his bar mitzvah.

Rebecca Cardozo died in 1879, and Benjamin was in large part raised by his older sister Ellen (Nell), with whom he continued to share a home until her death, in 1929.

Much of Cardozo’s drive not only to become a lawyer, but to become a judge, derived from the fact that his father, a judge on the New York Supreme Court, resigned his position in 1872, shortly before he was about to be impeached on corruption charges. The son was determined to redeem the family’s good name.

Cardozo entered Columbia College at age 15, and followed it with law school at Columbia. He left after two years, without a degree, after the school decided to increase the course of studies from two years to three, but he passed the bar exam in 1891. He then joined his brother, also named Albert, in the practice of commercial law at the law firm that had been their father’s.

In 1913, Cardozo was elected to the New York State Supreme Court, which despite its name, is a trial-level rather than an appeals court. Within a month, he was appointed to fill an opening on the Court of Appeals, to which he soon was elected to a full 14-year-term. That was followed by his election as chief judge of the court, in 1927; both times, his candidacy was back by both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Cardozo is probably better remembered for his rulings at the state level than for his Supreme Court opinions, if only because he served so much longer on the former: His term on U.S. Supreme Court lasted only from 1932 until his death, at age 68, in 1938.

In general, although Cardozo was often allied in his court votes with Brandeis and Harlan Stone as a liberal trio, he was not an ideological justice. He was known, however, for his wide historical knowledge, and his integrity and compassion. His decisions were written in an unmistakably clear English, and constitute an important addition to U.S. common law.

The modest and shy Cardozo never married, and although many historians have speculated over the possibility that he was homosexual, nearly all have concluded that he was celibate. His devotion to his sister Nell seems to have dominated his emotional life. After Cardozo’s death, on July 9, 1938, the following 40-year-old note was found in his desk: ‘’To Whom It May Concern: This is to certify that I love my Nunnie better than all the rest of the world combined. Dated, N.Y., Aug. 20, 1898. B.N.C.’’ There seems little doubt that “Nunnie” was an affectionate name for Nell.

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