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Benjamin N. Cardozo
(1870 - 1938)


Benjamin Cardozo was a proud Jewish American attorney and United States Supreme Court Judge, born and raised in New York City. He was known by giants such as Roscoe Pound as one of the greatest legal minds in America. The son of a New York Supreme Court judge, Cardozo first built his reputation at his father's law firm. He stands out as a prominent and influential Jewish professional in law practice and legal thought who made significant contributions to the reformation of jurisprudence in an era of anti-semitism. He recognized the need for reform during the transition into industrialization and worked steadily to bring it about.

Portrait of Benjamin Cardozo.
Cardozo, Benjamin. 10" x 12". 1999. Collection of Estate of Gary B. Pillersdorf. New York, NY.

Education and Legal Career

Cardozo was born to an upper-class Sephardic Jewish family whose name already was known in legal circles. At fifteen years old, Cardozo entered Columbia University, where he earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Political Science before entering the university's law school. While he abandoned his law studies after two years and never received his degree, this did not prevent him from changing the tides in commercial and criminal jurisprudence. After passing the bar in 1891, Cardozo became a democratic jurist and practiced appellate law at his father’s law firm. He eventually grew to be one of the most respected and sought-after commercial law attorneys of his time.

The quality and manner of his work quickly brought him to the New York Supreme Court of Appeals, where he held a temporary seat for four years, then sat for fourteen years as chief judge. Unexpectedly, President Herbert Hoover elected him to the Supreme Court. Despite the racially divided society of the 1930s, Cardozo was voted in unanimously and many made concessions to ensure his seat. He was the second Jewish man to serve on the Nation’s highest court.

The shape of America’s common law and criminal law owes a great deal to Cardozo’s influence.

The shape of America’s common law and criminal law owes a great deal to Cardozo’s influence. This Supreme Court seat allowed him to align the law with the societal changes brought by the industrial revolution. During his time on the Supreme Court, Cardozo backed Roosevelt’s New Deal, drawn especially to the social security programs it introduced. 

Associations and Legacy

While Cardozo co-founded the American Law Institute, Cardozo invested time in Judaic organizations in New York. He sat on the board of the American Jewish Committee and participated in the Zionist Organization of America.

Cardozo was respected and sought after for his progressive ideology, kindness, and an integrity informed by roots in Agnostic Jewish Traditionalism. He was written about with affection as a cultured gentleman and is still remembered as a powerful orator. While revolutionary during the era, his publications are now considered standards of legal education and influence, particularly The Nature of the Judicial Process.

His legacy continues at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, a progressive school dedicated, as he was, to ensuring that legal tradition remains dynamic and reflects contemporary society.

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