Biography of Louis Brandeis

Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


Louis Brandeis


Louis Brandeis was the first Jewish justice appointed to the American Supreme Court. It was President Woodrow Wilson who launched him into that position on June 5, 1916. Louis Dembitz Brandeis was born on November 13, 1856 and died October 3, 1941. He was an important American litigator. In addition, he helped lead the American Zionist movement. He was associated with the progressive wing of the Democratic party. He was an advocate of privacy and developed the Brandeis Brief. He believed and advocated for competition rather than monopoly in business.

Brandeis was born in Louisville, Kentucky. His family immigrated to the USA from Prague following the failed revolution of 1848. The Brandeis family were Frankists. They believed that the eighteenth century prophet Jacob Frank was the messiah of the Jewish people. Brandeis graduated from high school at age fourteen with the highest honors. He graduated from Harvard Law School at the head of his class with the highest marks of any student to have attended there. He became an attorney in Boston, achieving financial success, and took an active role in progressive causes.

In 1908, in the case of Muller v. Oregon, Brandeis, acting as a litigator, collected empirical data from hundreds of sources. In what became known as the “Brandeis Brief”, the report provided social authorities with information on the issue of the impact of long working hours on women. Brandeis always was a fighter against big business, which he considered inefficient and dangerous to American values.

Overcoming significant opposition to his appointment from ex-President and future Chief Justice William Howard Taft, Brandeis became one of the most influential and respected Supreme Court Justices in United States history. His votes and opinions envisioned the greater protections for individual rights and greater flexibility for government in economic regulation that would prevail in later courts.

As an octogenarian, Brandeis was deeply offended by his friend Franklin D. Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme of 1937, with its implication that elderly justices needed special help to carry out their duties. Brandeis retired from the Court in 1939.

Brandeis became the most prominent American Zionist. , Brandeis, who was not raised to be religious, became involved in Zionism through a 1912 conversation with Jacob de Haas, editor of a Boston Jewish weekly and a follower of Theodore Herzl.  When the Provisional Executive Committee for Zionist Affairs was established in New York, Brandeis accepted unanimous election to be its head. Brandeis emphasized the goal of self-determination and freedom for Jews through the development of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and the compatibility of Zionism and American patriotism. Brandeis brought his influence in the Woodrow Wilson administration to bear in the negotiations leading up to the Balfour Declaration. He remained active in Zionism until the end of his life.

Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the co-author, with Dr. Gerhard Falk, of  Youth Culture and the Generation Gap.

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