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Louis Brandeis
(1856 - 1941)


Louis Brandeis was an American politician and lawyer born to an immigrant Ashkenazi Jewish family from Prague, Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic). He was a Progressivist, involved in the Efficiency Movement and became a Zionist later in his life. Sharp intelligence and passion for the law brought him to influence the legal world early in his lifetime. He transformed the methodology of trial law and the Supreme Court and likely changed the fate of many people passing through the legal system. Brandeis’ career enshrined unprecedented labour laws and protections for individual privacy and the defense of freedom of speech.

Portrait of Louis Brandeis.
Brandeis, Louis. 10" x 12". 1999. Collection of Stewart Eisenberg. Eisenberg Rothweiler Winkler & Jeck. Philadelphia, PA.

Early Years and Education

Brandeis was born in Louisville, KY, where at a young age he was an exceptional student. His parents, Frederika Dembitz and Adolph Brandeis, are owed some credit for his success. Politicized by the 1848 Revolution in the Czech Republic and the upheaval that drove them to the United States, Frederika and Adolph became abolitionists and advocated for the security of personal privacy rights and individual protections. They highly valued knowledge, education, and political involvement, which cultivated an environment that informed Brandeis’ views of the world.

He graduated high school with honors at a mere 14 years old and was later awarded for his academic excellence by the Louisville University of the Public Schools. In 1872, he returned to Europe with his family where he studied at the Annenschule in Saxony. This time abroad honed his critical thinking abilities.  

At age 18, he entered Harvard Law School, where his achievements shocked the institution. Flourishing under the changes in legal pedagogy from traditional case law to the Socratic, precedent-based method that encouraged legal reasoning, Brandeis completed a Bachelor of Laws before reaching the university-regulated age with the highest grades in the school’s history. 

Brandeis completed a Bachelor of Laws before reaching the university-regulated age with the highest grades in the school’s history. 

After graduation, Brandeis tutored law students and independently continued his law studies to further hone his knowledge. A year later, he was admitted into the Missouri Bar and began working at a St. Louis law firm. Soon after, he and Samuel Warren, a Harvard colleague, struck a partnership and established a law firm in Boston, which continues to operate today as Nutter McClennen & Fish. Two years later, after spending some time serving as a law clerk to the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Horace Gray, Brandeis entered the Massachusetts bar without examination. 

Legal Career: "People's Lawyer"

Because of his family's resources, Brandeis frequently provided pro bono work and eventually became known as the People’s Lawyer and the Robin Hood of the Law. Dedicated to advocating social and political rights, he took on unpaid cases to serve both individuals and to support the collective. He did all that was possible to stand against American-industrialism, powerful monopolizing corporations, public corruption, and mass consumerism, which he believed were detrimental to American values.

The most notable achievement in his career was the Brandeis Brief, a pioneering document that forever changed the Supreme Court and law in the United States. Brandeis took on the case Muller v. Oregon in defense of women’s labour rights. In court, he presented for the first time in Supreme Court history a brief based on medical, social and scientific documentation, the testimony of laborers, and little appeal to legal argumentation. His work was a benchmark first effort to merge law with social science. It quickly became a model and strategy, which many future class cases of health and welfare in the Supreme Court built upon. 

He is remembered as courageous, and, according to Justice William O. Douglas, “dangerous because he was incorruptible.”     

Later, he was selected to represent Colliers Magazine against a suit in the large case of Ballinger and Galvin involving the Taft administration, the Department of the Interior, and land claims in Alaska. This case exalted Brandeis, “an obscure Boston Lawyer,” as a nationally recognized champion of people’s rights. For his crusade for social justice, he was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916.

Legacy

Law was not only Brandeis’ vocation, but his passion. He wrote frequently about the emotional connection to legal studies and the law. This passion and a desire to learn and participate in the law, drove his early and nationally influential successes. Brandeis is memorialized in the Brandeis University in Waltham, MA, and lives on in the actions of the United States legal system. He was a visionary of American values and freedoms and he fought to improve all facets of American life, society, and nation. He is remembered as courageous, and, according to Justice William O. Douglas, “dangerous because he was incorruptible.”     

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