On this day in 1916, Louis Brandeis became the first Jewish person to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he would serve until 1939.
Born to immigrants fleeing antisemitism from what was then the Austrian Empire, he graduated Harvard Law at only 20 years old, with what is rumored to be the highest GPA in the school’s history.
As early as 1890, he helped develop the concept of a “right to privacy” and rallied against big banks, powerful corporations, monopolies, political corruption, and mass consumerism, all of which he felt were anathema to American values. As an attorney, he devoted most of his time to public causes, earning the moniker of the “People’s Lawyer” for his insistence on working pro bono in order to take on the most important issues of the day. He was also dubbed the “Robin Hood of the law” for his fight against railroad monopolies, defense of workers’ rights, and the conceptualization of the newly created Federal Trade Commission, which protected consumers from unfair business practices. He was also recognized for developing the “Brandeis Brief,” which relied on expert testimony from people in other professions to support his case, setting a new precedent in evidence presentation.
Brandeis’ nomination to the Court was so fraught that, for the first time in its history, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on it. According to fellow Justice William O. Douglas, it was controversial because 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… [and] the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.” Indeed, opponents regarded him as an anti business “radical” and “agitator” who lacked the “dispassionate temperament” needed to be a judge. Blatant anti semitism was, of course, also a factor. But enough people came to his defense that he won the nomination 47 to 22.
Ultimately, Brandeis became one of the most influential figures ever to serve on the Court, his opinions recognized by legal scholars as some of the “greatest defenses” of freedom of speech and the right to privacy ever written by a Justice. Throughout my first year of law school, I came across many of his brilliant opinions, many of them lonely dissents in the face of familiar uphill battles against privacy violations — see his prescient dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States (1928):
The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect. They knew that only part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred against the government, the right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.