Louis Brandeis during Hanukkah in 1915 delivered a message to the Zionists of America that described the holiday as a celebration of the struggle for democracy.
Brandeis himself strove for social justice during his lifetime. Over the course of his long career he earned the nickname the Peoples’ Lawyer.
A brilliant lawyer and jurist, he introduced pro bono legal service and the concept of the right to privacy. He pioneered the use of scientific and economic data in legal arguments.
Louis Brandeis also helped write the Federal Reserve Act, fought for strong first amendment rights, corporate transparency, consumer protection and workers’ health and safety. He fought corruption and corporate monopoly, and he supported both conservation and Zionism.
He was born November 13, 1856 in Louisville, Ky., to parents who escaped anti-Semitism in Bohemia, now the Czech Republic.
His brilliance became apparent in his youth, when his parents taught him to cherish high-minded ideals. He graduated from high school at 14 and then went to Harvard.
Louis Brandeis graduated from Harvard Law School at the age of 20, with the highest grade point average recorded by the school for the next 80 years. His doctor urged him to drop out after he damaged his eyes by studying intensely in dim gaslight. Instead, he paid other students to read to him.
After graduation, Louis Brandeis and a fellow student started a law practice in Boston. He had clerked for a Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Horace Gray, and Massachusetts’ legal community viewed him so highly he didn’t have to take the bar exam. His law firm, Nutter McClennen & Fish, still exists in Boston today.
At 35, Louis Brandeis wrote an article in the Harvard Law Review defining the right to privacy, which added an entire chapter to American law.
In 1891 he married Alice Goldmark and they had two daughters. He earned enough money to make his family comfortable. Though a millionaire, he lived in a modest home on Beacon Hill, and he paddled a canoe in Dedham, Mass., for relaxation.
Crusader for Justice
Louis Brandeis famously said,
We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.
When he’d earned enough money from his law practice he began a crusade for social reform. He successfully fought J.P. Morgan’s efforts to monopolize New England’s railroads. He also exposed insurance fraud in Massachusetts, and he fought the practice of turning over federal lands to private corporations.
Starting in 1914, Louis Brandeis began to expose the miserable conditions in Massachusetts poorhouses. He held 57 hearings in nine months, which resulted in the reorganization of the poor law. He also exposed corruption among Boston’s politicians and persuaded the Legislature to make certain kinds of corruption a crime.
That year, he wrote a book called Other People’s Money, and How the Bankers Use It, about investment bankers’ control of American industry.
Eventually, Louis Brandeis stopped accepting money for his work, devoting his energies to representing the people. He won his nine-year fight against J.P. Morgan’s attempt to control all New England’s railroads. In the famous Brandeis Brief he pioneered the concept of using science to argue cases. He argued, successfully, that the law should prevent women from working excessive hours because it injured their health.
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson nominated his friend Louis Brandeis to the U.S. Supreme Court. His opponents bitterly fought the nomination. Later, Justice William O. Douglas wrote that Brandeis was feared because he was incorruptible. And, he wrote,
… the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.
Louis Brandeis, during his 22 years on the Supreme Court, was considered one of the finest and fairest justices ever.
He joined the Zionist movement in 1914, because he believed it the solution to anti-Semitism.
In his 1915 message to Zionists, called the Victory of the Maccabees, Louis Brandeis described their triumph as
…not a military victory only; but a victory also of the spirit over things material…a victory of the many over the ease-loving, safety-playing, privileged, powerful few, who in their pliancy would have betrayed the best interests of the people; a victory of democracy over aristocracy.
As a part of the eternal world-wide struggle for democracy, the struggle of the Maccabees is of eternal worldwide interest. It is a struggle of the Jews today, as well as those of 2,000 years ago. It is a struggle of America as well as of Palestine.
Louis Brandeis died on Oct. 5, 1941, two years after retiring from the Supreme Court.
In 1948, the Jewish community founded a co-ed, nonsectarian university called Brandeis in Waltham, Mass.
This story was updated in 2022.