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Portrait of Louis Brandeis
Portrait of Louis Brandeis.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.

Louis Dembitz Brandeis

b. November 13, 1856, Louisville, KY
d. October 5, 1941, Washington, D.C.

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Born of immigrant Jewish parents from a cultivated Bohemian family, Louis Dembitz Brandeis studied at local public schools in Kentucky and the Annen Realschule in Dresden, Germany. He then attended Harvard Law School and graduated first in his class in 1877. He practiced briefly in St. Louis before moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and setting up practice with a classmate from law school. Their firm thrived, advising businesses how to negotiate the rapidly changing commercial and regulatory landscape of the late 19th century. By the beginning of the 20th century Brandeis was one of the most famous and most consulted lawyers in the country.

Because he was frugal and a savvy investor, Brandeis achieved financial independence at an early age; this freed him to pursue issues he believed important. A social reformer at heart, he campaigned against corruption in local and state governments and helped craft and pass legislation to protect workers. He took on a number of pro bono cases, a practice almost unheard of in his day. For this he became widely known as "the People's Attorney." In 1908 Brandeis was asked to defend Oregon's maximum-hour law for working women (Muller v. Oregon). Two years earlier the Supreme Court had ruled that a maximum-hour law for bakery workers was unconstitutional. Brandeis agreed to defend the Oregon law and produced a brief (the "Brandeis brief") in which two pages stated how the law's constitutionality should be tested. The following 100 pages were filled with sociological and economic data drawn from hundreds of sources, supporting the need for and reasonableness of the Oregon law. It was the first time social science was used to argue a case before the Supreme Court, and in 1908, the Court upheld the law. Brandeis's brief became widely used as a model for Supreme Court presentations.

A foe of big business, Brandeis supported President Woodrow Wilson's idea of using regulation to force market competition, and Wilson appointed Brandeis to the Supreme Court in 1916. The appointment stirred heated opposition among business interests and anti-semites opposed to having a Jew on the high court. He was confirmed by the Senate largely along party lines.

Brandeis consistently ruled in favor of freedom of speech, constrained only by the "clear and present danger" test. He was assiduous in uncovering the underlying facts of cases brought before him. Although he actively approved progressive legislation while Oliver Wendell Holmes merely tolerated it, the two were often in agreement on important cases. In the 1920s and 1930s, legislation to achieve social goals became more and more common, but the Court generally overturned it. Brandeis and Holmes issued a series of cogent dissenting opinions in such cases that became the foundations for decisions by the Court in following decades. Brandeis was the first justice to argue that the Constitution protected a "right to privacy," calling this "the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men." (More than a quarter-century after Brandeis' retirement, the Court finally came to agree with him, recognizing a constitutional right to privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut [1965].)

Though not raised in a religious household, in 1912 Brandeis became an advocate for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and he remained an active Zionist all his life.

John Fox, a writer and documentary film producer, was series producer of the Emmy-winning PBS series HERITAGE: CIVILIZATION AND THE JEWS. Editor-in-chief of the award-winning HERITAGE DVD-ROM, he supervised the creation of its 540-map interactive atlas of world history. He is currently writing a book about the growth of communal intelligence over the centuries.

Charles Evans Hughes James McReynolds Louis Brandeis William Howard Taft George Sutherland Harlan Fiske Stone view all biographies Stephen Field Oliver Wendell Holmes