Plenty of lawyers have enjoyed illustrious careers, but how many could claim to have twice made history involving the Supreme Court? Louis Brandeis could. In 1908, Brandeis made an unprecedented argument before the Court. Eight years later, he survived an ugly political battle and became the first Jewish justice on the nation’s highest court.
Born in Louisville, Ky., on Nov. 13, 1856, Louis Brandeis was the son of Bohemian Jewish parents. Despite lacking a formal college degree, the 18-year-old Brandeis entered the Harvard Law School in 1875 and went on to achieve one of the greatest records in its history. Thanks to the passing of a special resolution, Brandeis overcome being younger than the required age of 21 years and received a bachelor of law degree in 1877. Brandeis studied law at Harvard for another year, but his association with the school continued after he was admitted to the bar. He helped found the alumni group the Harvard Law School Association in 1886 and spent many years as its secretary.
Brandeis and classmate Samuel D. Warren became partners in 1879 and went on to write one of the best-known law articles ever, “The Right to Privacy.” By the time of the article’s publication in the December 1890 Harvard Law Review, Brandeis’ practice was successful enough that he could work without pay on numerous public causes. He began the 20th century as one of the country’s most respected and prominent lawyers and earned the moniker “the People’s Attorney.”
The Supreme Court received a first-hand demonstration of Brandeis’ commitment to the public good when he was asked to defend Oregon's maximum-hour law for working women in 1908. He seemingly faced an uphill battle; the Court had ruled 2 years earlier that a maximum-hour law for bakery workers was unconstitutional. To defend the law, he created what came to be known as the “Brandeis brief,” which had two pages stating how the law’s constitutionality should be tested and 100 pages of sociological and economic data supporting the law. It was the first time that social science had been used in an argument before the Supreme Court, and the law was upheld. Many lawyers would use the “Brandeis brief” as a model for Supreme Court presentations.
In 1912, Brandeis, who hadn’t grown up in a religious home, became an advocate for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He remained one for the first of his life. Brandeis continued investigating the influence of growing wealth in large corporations on democracy, and in 1914 he published “Other People's Money, and How the Bankers Use It,” which described his opposition to monopolies. President Woodrow Wilson appointed Brandeis to the Supreme Court on Jan. 28, 1916 – nearly 3 years after Brandeis declined an invitation to join Woodrow’s Cabinet. Opponents included six former American Bar Association presidents and former president of the United States William Howard Taft, who claimed Brandeis was a radical. Anti-Semitism was also a factor, but Brandeis was confirmed and served on the Court from June 5, 1916, until Feb. 13, 1939.
Time hadn’t changed Brandeis’ views on liberty, and as a justice his rulings consistently supported freedom of speech, although he made an exception for language that failed the “clear and present danger” test. He and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes often agreed on important cases, although Brandeis was a far more enthusiastic supporter of progressive legislation. The Court often overturned legislation to achieve social goals that became increasingly common in the 1920s and 1930s, but the passionate dissenting opinions Brandeis and Holmes wrote in such cases would serve as the foundations for Court decisions in later decades. Brandeis achieved another milestone by becoming the first justice to argue that the Constitution protected a “right to privacy,” which he called “the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” Brandeis died on Oct. 5, 1941, in Washington, D.C. It wasn’t until the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut that the Court recognized a Constitutional right to privacy.