Louis Dembitz Brandeis made history as the first Jewish member of the Supreme Court.
One hundred and five years ago, on June 1, 1916, Louis Dembitz Brandeis took his seat on the Supreme Court of the United States. This was a monumental moment, and its anniversary should be celebrated. Brandeis had a deep, significant impact upon the nature of American law. He also made history as the first Jewish member of the Supreme Court.
Brandeis was born on Nov. 13, 1856, in Louisville, Ky., and was raised by Jewish immigrants from Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic). Brandeis was a brilliant student, who enrolled in the law school at Harvard University and graduated at the age of 20.
Upon graduation, Brandeis moved to Boston and opened a law firm that still exists today. As he pursued progressive causes such as fair labor laws and the anti-monopoly movement, Brandeis soon gained a reputation as a progressive thinker, dubbed the “People’s Lawyer.” He believed that “If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.” In this regard, Brandeis co-authored a pathbreaking article, “The Right to Privacy,” in the Harvard Law Review in 1890 that altered American jurisprudence.
President Woodrow Wilson’s nomination of Brandeis to the Supreme Court in 1916 caused a tremendous battle in the U.S. Senate. He was bitterly opposed by many senators who labeled Brandeis a “militant crusader for social justice.” In that era, the fact that he was Jewish was certainly a factor as well.
Brandeis was eventually appointed to the Court in 1916 and served there until 1939. He died on Oct. 5, 1941. His legacy continues to this day, especially, in legal interpretations of freedom of speech and the right to privacy.
References to and stories about Brandeis can be found in every decade in the pages of the Detroit Jewish Chronicle and the JN in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History. There are announcements for the activities of the Louis Brandeis Lodge of B’nai B’rith in Detroit or the Louis Brandeis awards from the local chapter of the Zionist Organization of America. There are many serious discussions of Brandeis and his ideas. Indeed, the first mention of Brandeis in the March 24, 1916, issue of the Chronicle is about his Supreme Court nomination battle.
Brandeis was also a dedicated Zionist. The editorial in the Nov. 13, 1931, Chronicle is about his particular approach to Zionism: “My approach to Zionism was through Americanism.” Furthermore, Brandeis declared: “To be a good American one must also be a good Jew.”
As proof, perhaps, of the continuing relevance of Brandeis, see the article by Harold Gurewitz in the Sept. 27, 2018, issue of the JN: “Justice Brandeis and a Right to Privacy in the Digital Age.” The point is that Brandeis is still the primary benchmark for privacy rights.
Brandeis is universally considered to be one of the giants of American jurists. He was a guardian of our nation and the rights of its citizens. After the attack on the capital on Jan. 6, 2021, I also think of his wise warning: “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning, but without understanding.” Yes, Brandeis understood the rule of law.
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