‘People’s Lawyer’ Louis Brandeis: 1st Jewish Supreme Court Justice

On 1 June 1916, President Woodrow Wilson achieved one of his greatest political triumphs when his controversial nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Louis Dembitz Brandeis, was confirmed as the first Jewish Supreme Court justice. Brandeis, whose brilliant legal mind was acknowledged by even his staunchest opponents, had built such a successful private law practice that he was able to devote himself to supporting public causes – for which he adamantly refused any compensation.

photo of Louis Brandeis, c. 1916

Photo: Louis Brandeis, c. 1916. Credit: Harris and Ewing; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

He became a fierce legal opponent of monopolies, large corporations and public corruption; an advocate for social reform; and a protector of workers’ rights and working conditions. He also helped pioneer a concept that has become extremely important in today’s world: the right to privacy.

In a speech Brandeis gave at his alma mater Harvard University in 1905, he said:

Instead of holding a position of independence, between the wealthy and the people, prepared to curb the excesses of either, able lawyers have, to a large extent, allowed themselves to become adjuncts of great corporations and have neglected the obligation to use their powers for the protection of the people. We hear much of the ‘corporation lawyer,’ and far too little of the ‘people’s lawyer.’ The great opportunity of the American Bar is and will be to stand again as it did in the past, ready to protect also the interests of the people.

As a crusading “people’s lawyer,” Brandeis won many legal victories for working people and the general public, and worked hard to support Woodrow Wilson during the presidential campaign of 1912 – and later, helped President Wilson formulate his ideas on how to combat monopolies and regulate large corporations. As a consequence of all this judicial and political activism, Brandeis earned the enmity of conservative Republicans and powerful, wealthy businessmen.

Therefore, it was not surprising that when President Wilson nominated Brandeis for the Supreme Court on 29 January 1916, the nomination was controversial and met with a great deal of opposition. After Brandeis retired from the Supreme Court on 13 February 1939, his successor, Justice William O. Douglas, wrote of the opposition to Brandeis’s confirmation:

Brandeis was a militant crusader for social justice whoever his opponent might be. He was dangerous not only because of his brilliance, his arithmetic, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible.

Douglas also acknowledged one of the strong undercurrents in the opposition to Brandeis’s confirmation: the fact that he was a Jew. As Douglas wrote:

The fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.

Traditionally, confirmation of Supreme Court nominees had been a matter of a straightforward up-or-down vote in the Senate, usually held on the same day the president submitted the nomination. However, the controversy over Brandeis changed everything. For the first time ever, the Senate Judiciary Committee held public hearings on the nomination, and 47 witnesses testified during a confirmation process that took an unprecedented four months to complete. Bitter opposition came from such famous figures as former President William Howard Taft, who would himself go on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on 11 July 1921, and former presidents of the American Bar Association.

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Even the head of Brandeis’s alma mater, Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, opposed his confirmation, even though Lowell was in many ways a fellow progressive – and Brandeis had been one of the most brilliant students in Harvard University’s history, graduating in 1877 at the age of 20 as valedictorian, with the highest grade point average in the school’s history (a record that took eight decades to break). The reason for Lowell’s opposition is revealed, perhaps, when one remembers that one of his more controversial efforts was an attempt to limit Jewish enrollment at Harvard to 15% of the student body. Anti-Semitism was an unspoken but strong factor in the opposition to Brandeis.

When all the wrangling was done, the full Senate confirmed Brandeis by a vote of 47 to 22 on 1 June 1916. During a 23-year career as a Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandeis continued to be the “people’s lawyer,” especially in the areas of freedom of speech and the right to privacy, and he earned a legacy as one of the Court’s greatest justices.

article about the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Boston Journal newspaper article 2 June 1916

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 2 June 1916, page 1

This old newspaper article reported:

Washington, June 1.—The nomination of Louis D. Brandeis of Boston to the Supreme Court to succeed the late Joseph Rucker Lamar, was confirmed by the Senate today by a vote of 47 to 22. The vote, taken without debate, ended one of the bitterest contests ever waged against a presidential nominee. Mr. Brandeis will be the first Jew to occupy a seat on the Supreme bench.

One Democrat in Opposition

Only one Democrat, Senator Newlands, voted against confirmation. Three Republicans, Senators La Follette, Norris and Poindexter, voted with the Democratic majority, and Senators Gronna and Clapp would have done so, but were paired with Senators Borah and Kenyon. The negative vote of Senator Newlands was a complete surprise to the Senate, and the Nevada senator, recognizing that his action had aroused comment, later made public a formal explanation.

Newlands Explains Vote

“I have a high admiration for Mr. Brandeis as a publicist and propagandist of distinction,” said Senator Newlands. “I do not regard him as a man of judicial temperament, and for that reason I have voted against his confirmation.”

Throughout the fight President Wilson stood firmly behind his nominee, never wavering even when it seemed certain that an unfavorable report would be returned by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Before the committee voted he wrote a letter to Chairman Culberson, strongly urging prompt and favorable action.

The new justice was born 60 years ago in Louisville, Ky., graduated from Harvard University in 1877 and began the practice of law in Boston after admission to the bar in 1878. He probably will take the oath of office June 13, a week from Monday, just before the Court adjourns for the summer recess.

Nomination Sent in Jan. 29

The nomination of Mr. Brandeis was sent to the Senate Jan. 29. It was referred to the Judiciary Committee, and immediately a flood of protests against confirmation and memorials in favor thereof began to pour in.

A sub-committee consisting of Senators Chilton, Fletcher, Walsh, Cummins and Works was appointed to report on the nomination. It adopted the unusual course of holding public hearings. Clifford Thorns, railroad commissioner of Iowa, was the first witness, protesting against confirmation on the ground that Mr. Brandeis had been guilty of unprofessional conduct in handling the 8 per cent. rate advance case before the Interstate Commerce Commission. Sidney W. Winslow, president of the United Shoe Machinery Company, testified that Mr. Brandeis had been guilty of unprofessional conduct in relation to his company, and shortly thereafter Austin G. Fox, a New York attorney, appeared before the committee as the representative of 85 citizens of Boston, headed by A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard, and took charge of the opposition. Then United States District Attorney George W. Anderson of Boston, at the request of the committee, undertook direction of the case for those favoring confirmation.

47 Witnesses Testified

In all, 47 witnesses were heard and 1,500 pages of testimony taken. William H. Taft, Simeon E. Baldwin, Francis Rawle, Joseph H. Choate, Elihu Root, Moorfield Storey and Peter W. Meldrim, all former presidents of the American Bar Association, wrote protests to the committee against confirmation, and Charles W. Eliot, president emeritus of Harvard, and many others wrote in favor of confirmation.

On April 3 the sub-committee, by a strict party vote, recommended confirmation, and on May 14 the full committee agreed to a favorable report by another strict party division.

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17 May 1954: Supreme Court Rules against School Segregation

Tomorrow marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most momentous U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the nation’s history, one so profound that it forever changed life in America. On 17 May 1954, the Court announced its Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, ruling that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. This unanimous Supreme Court ruling overturned the established “separate but equal” doctrine, opening up the path to integration and giving the Civil Rights Movement a solid legal foundation.

School Segregation Outlawed, Advocate newspaper article 18 May 1954

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 18 May 1954, page 1

On that May 17 day when Chief Justice Warren read the decision, the Supreme Court broke with its own tradition. Usually, reporters in the courtroom were handed printed copies of the decision just prior to its public reading. On that day, however, no printed copies were distributed, and it took a while before the Court’s decision was finally known. Everyone had to wait long, anxious moments while Warren’s reading began with an analysis of the history of the “separate but equal” doctrine, established by the Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896.

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High Court Rules against Segregation in Schools, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 17 May 1954

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 17 May 1954, page 1

After what must have seemed an interminable wait, the attentive audience heard Warren say these words:

We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.

Segregation Ruling Poses Vast Problems for South, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 18 May 1954

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 18 May 1954, page 1

It may have taken a while to finally learn the Supreme Court’s decision—but it did not take anyone long to realize the historic implications of the ruling. At that time, 17 states had laws requiring segregated public schools, and another 4 permitted it. All 21 of those public school systems would now have to be changed.

Want to learn more? Explore over 2,000 news articles about the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court case in our historical archives.

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