Biography of Benjamin Cardozo

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Benjamin Cardozo (1870 - 1938)


Benjamin Cardozo was the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice of the United States. His family had come to British North America from Portugal in 1740. Furthermore, Cardozo spoke Spanish fluently. He was also the second Jew to be appointed to that high office.

Cardozo was also a Supreme Court justice without a law degree. Please note that the Constitution does not require a law degree in order to be one of the “nine old men (women)”.

Having entered Columbia University at age 15, he continued in law school but left after only two years to begin the practice of law. This is still possible in New York.  I have a colleague who has only one year of law school training but apprenticed to a lawyer three years and now has a license to practice here. This method of gaining access to the profession is rarely used.

Benjamin’s father was also a lawyer and this facilitated Benjamin’s entrance into the legal profession. 

In 1913 Benjamin entered politics. In that year he was elected to the New York Supreme Court. In New York the Supreme Court is not supreme. It is a court of original jurisdiction. A few weeks after his arrival at the Supreme Court he was elevated to the Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York. He stayed there until 1932 after becoming chief justice in 1927.

In the course of his tenure as justice, Cardozo became a legal scholar. His book, The Nature of the Judicial Process, is still used today. Cardozo made some celebrated decisions in Wood vs. Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon; Palsgraf vs. Long Island Railroad and MacPherson vs. Buick Motor Co.

In Hynes vs. New York Central Railroad, Cardozo held the railroad responsible despite the accident victim being a trespasser. In Berkey vs. Third Ave. Railroad Cardozo refused to allow a parent corporation to escape its duty by blaming a subsidiary. That device had been used for years to allow corporations to escape their responsibilities.

In 1932 President Herbert Hoover appointed Cardozo justice of the Supreme Court to succeed Oliver Wendell Holmes. This is the same Herbert Hoover so often maligned by the followers of Franklin Roosevelt, who was without doubt one of the most vociferous enemies of the Jewish people.

As associate justice, Cardozo became famous for his defense of the Bill of Rights and the Due Process clause of the 14th amendment. Because Cardozo was a celibate he had no children. He died at age 68 of a sudden heart attack.

Benjamin Cardozo is remembered today because Yeshiva University has named its Law School for him. In Washington, D.C., there is a Cardozo Metro stop; there is a Cardozo High school in New York City and a Cardozo Lodge # 163.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Football & American Identity (2005) &  Youth Culture and the Generation Gap (2005) with Dr. Ursula A. Falk.

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