‘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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Christmas Family Reunion Articles Are Rich Genealogy Resources

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena searches old newspapers to show how much valuable family history information is provided by family reunion stories newspapers routinely printed around Christmas time.

The end of the year seems like the perfect time to renew acquaintances and hold reunions with family and friends. Even though families find it difficult to find time to get together throughout the year for other events like birthdays or anniversaries, Christmas is a time when people are more likely to make the effort to take a trip home. The other benefit of the Holiday season is that for many who normally would have to take vacation time off from work to travel, the Christmas/New Year’s holidays may mean some flexibility with work obligations. So the Holiday season is a great time to plan a family reunion.

The idea of a December family reunion is not a new one. Sure, it’s made easier with modern transportation conveniences, but it was a common occurrence in the late 19th to early 20th century, as shown by many newspaper stories at that time. These Christmas family reunion articles are a great way for family historians to catch a glimpse into the daily lives of their ancestors. A bonus for the genealogist is that these family reunion articles often included the names of all those in attendance. Even short newspaper announcements can contain genealogically rich information that could be of assistance to descendants.

I did a search for Christmas family reunions in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, and found many delightful examples.

Newspapers report on the lives of a community as well as the celebrities and leaders of a nation. So it’s not surprising that a Christmas family reunion in the White House was newsworthy. For Christmas 1910, newspapers nationwide reported that President Howard Taft had a reunion with his three children, Robert, Helen and Charles, at the White House—complete with a turkey dinner. The only thing missing was the Christmas tree because, as the article notes, the children were “older.”

Christmas at White House: Tafts to Hold Family Reunion and Partake of Turkey Dinner, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 25 December 1910

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 25 December 1910, page 2

While there are countless examples of newspaper articles detailing a family reunion, this one in the Social Affairs column of a 1903 newspaper caught my eye. In the historical newspaper article we find the mention of 13 separate family gatherings. One of the stories, reporting on the dinner at A. Galloway’s, mentions who was there (four generations were present), and reports that the Christmas reunion was leading up to some noteworthy wedding anniversaries. The A. C. Galloways and the A. Galloways would be celebrating their 67th and 56th wedding anniversary in 1904, respectively. It might seem like a breach of etiquette to modern readers but the addition of the words “if they live” came after that statement. If one needed any more hints revealing how old these two couples were, the last sentence of the article notes: “The combined ages of the four is 334 years.”

article about a Christmas family reunion hosted by A. Galloway, Daily Telegram newspaper article 28 December 1903

Daily Telegram (Adrian, Michigan), 28 December 1903, page 2

Maybe you are planning a family reunion of your own this season. Chances are it won’t be as large as this one, reported in a 1922 newspaper. Mrs. M. J. Nash had 91 family members attend her Christmas reunion! Lucky for any of her present-day descendants, the list of those who attended was printed in the newspaper.

The newspaper article concludes by saying she gave everyone in attendance a gift “by which to remember her.”

[Christmas Family Reunion]: Ninety-one Relatives Gather at Home of Mrs. M. J. Nash, Oregonian newspaper article 31 December 1922

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 31 December 1922, section 3, page 9

The old newspaper article about Mrs. Nash’s Christmas family reunion wasn’t the only one I found that included the names of other family members in attendance. This 1921 Christmas reunion article for the family of Mr. and Mrs. John Stanford included the names of those who attended and the number of children they had. As a genealogist, this historical newspaper article is very appealing since it also provides the couple’s street address and a sentence reporting on a family photo that was taken and who was in the photo: “A picture of the host and hostess, with their sons and daughters, grouped about them, was also another feature, and this should be a pleasant reminder for the parents of the event.”

Christmas [Stanford Family] Reunion Delightful Affair, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 28 December 1921

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 28 December 1921, page 6

Did your ancestor hold a Christmas family reunion? This fact may not be known to your present-day family—but if it did occur there’s a good chance it and the names of all gathered can be found in their local newspaper. Finding such an article full of relatives’ names would be a great genealogy gift to receive, something that would make any family historian smile.