Louis Brandeis Biography

Supreme Court Justice (1856–1941)
Louis Brandeis was the first Jew to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. His decisions affirmed individual liberty and privacy and opposed unchecked governmental power.


Louis Brandeis was born in Kentucky on November 13, 1856. He graduated from Harvard Law School at the age of 20, and quickly became known as "the people’s lawyer" for fighting for workers' rights and breaking up monopolies. President Woodrow Wilson appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1916, and his decisions affirmed individual liberty and opposed unchecked governmental power. He died in 1941.

Early Life

Louis Dembitz Brandeis was born on November 13, 1856, in Louisville, Kentucky. His parents, Adolph Brandeis and Frederika Dembitz, were Bohemian Jews who valued and encouraged education and culture. Brandeis graduated from high school at the age of 14 and attended college first in Kentucky, and then in Germany when his father relocated the family overseas. He entered Harvard Law School in 1875, and graduated as valedictorian at the age of 20.

Private Practice

Brandeis practiced law briefly in St. Louis, Missouri, before returning to Boston to set up a law firm, Warren and Brandeis, with former Harvard classmate Samuel Warren. They published a famous article in the Harvard Law Review, "The Right to Privacy," in which they argued that private citizens are entitled to be left alone and that the press should not be permitted to publish their photos or the details of their lives without their consent.

Brandeis spent much of his career crusading against monopolies and large corporations, and advocating for free speech. He became known as "the people's attorney," and refused payment for his services. In some of his most notable cases, he helped save the Boston subway system and break up the New Haven Railroad monopoly. He also represented New England Policy-Holders’ Protective Committee in a suit that helped establish a new form of savings-bank life insurance. He also spent several years defending the constitutionality of state laws that set limits on the number of hours or types of conditions in which a worker could work. In Muller v. Oregon, he wrote what is known as the "Brandeis Brief," in which supporting evidence including historical, sociological and scientific data was marshaled to support the case.

Supreme Court

Brandeis was offered a position in President Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet in 1913, but he declined. In 1914, he published Other People's Money and How the Bankers Use It, in which he attacked monopolies and the ways investment bankers controlled American industry. Then, in 1916, President Wilson nominated Brandeis to the Supreme Court. Though he faced bitter opposition from anti-Semites and supporters of big business, he was confirmed, and became the first Jew to sit on the Supreme Court.

Brandeis and his colleague Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. often dissented from the Court’s prevailing opinions. Brandeis opposed unlimited governmental power and an interpretation of "individual liberty" that allowed a few people to control economic actualities that affected the public at large. In two of his most important decisions, Whitney v. California and Olmstead v. United States, he championed the public's right to privacy, and upheld laws that supported freedom of expression.

Late in his career, Brandeis addressed President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal propositions. Although he supported most New Deal legislation, he repeatedly voted to limit presidential authority. In 1935 he agreed with more-conservative judges in a unanimous vote that declared the National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional because it afforded the president "unfettered discretion" to pass laws in the name of economic recovery. Brandeis retired in 1939.

Personal Life

In 1891. Brandeis married Alice Goldmark, with whom he had two daughters. He became a Zionist, believing that establishing a Jewish homeland was key to combating anti-Semitism.

Louis Brandeis died on October 5, 1941. Brandeis University is named in his honor.

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