Louis D. Brandeis, A Life

The Book of the Week is “Louis D. Brandeis, A Life” by Melvin I. Urofsky, published in 2009. This is the lengthy biography of an attorney and Supreme Court Justice.

The youngest of three siblings, Brandeis grew up in Louisville, KY in the 1850’s and 1860’s, and graduated from Harvard Law School.

Prior to the early 20th century, Brandeis felt that his job as an attorney was to help develop a fair solution for all parties involved in a dispute. He felt he was a mediator and moralist, rather than an attorney being paid to favorably act on behalf of and give legal advice to only his client. This mentality led Brandeis to engage in a few conflicts of interest in dealing with his firm’s clients.  For instance, he represented a corporate client in litigation in which a third party was represented by his firm.

Despite becoming embroiled in a few episodes of hypocrisy, Brandeis fought against corrupt, monopolistic practices of various large American institutions. He felt obligated to do what he considered public service, pro bono. Fortunately, his income as a law partner allowed this.

In the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, there were three big insurance companies that wielded an amount of power similar to that of big-name brokerages in the early 2000’s. The outsized ego and greed of the insurance executives, too, led them to manipulate the government, commit accounting irregularities, and abuse their power and the public’s trust. Brandeis took them on, exposing what he thought was their moral depravity. He then found a way for the public to avoid adding to the profits of the evil insurance corporations by initiating the sale of affordable life insurance through savings banks.

Brandeis was nominated a Supreme Court Justice by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. “When confronted with the first Jew named to the Supreme Court, and in a time of growing nativism, clearly those who ‘feared foreigners’ would oppose the appointment.” Brandeis had to endure four stressful months of hearings and background checking before he was appointed.

Around 1920, Brandeis became active in the Zionist movement. He controversially defined the movement as one in which oppressed Jews could receive financial assistance to improve their lot through settling in Palestine. Since the persecuted Jews who had found a haven in the United States had become successful in their adopted country, they did not need to go to Palestine to build a homeland there. But they were urged to help their fellow Jews who were worse off than themselves, to do so. Other people in the movement felt Brandeis did not truly understand the mentality of the oppressed Jewish immigrants, who viewed Palestine as a place they could freely practice their religion.

During the 1930’s, when Great Britain realized that Arabs greatly outnumbered Jews, and that there was so much oil in the Middle East, she changed her political position on Zionism as mentioned in the Balfour Declaration. She found the Jews argumentative, and wanted Palestine to be “an Arab-dominated region under English tutelage.”

Brandeis favored a workday shorter than twelve or fourteen hours, in order to give unionized American workers time to fulfill their civic responsibilities to get involved in local politics and “as parents and members of their communities.”

As a Supreme Court Justice, Brandeis left an influential legacy in that he had a “… great impact not only on jurisdictional matters but on commercial law, antitrust, administrative law, utility regulation, federalism, and individual liberties.”

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