People’s Attorney, Justice Louis Brandeis

Black and white portrait of Justice Louis Brandeis in 1916. He appears as an elderly gentleman with greying hair and deep-set eyes. He is wearing a dark judicial robe over a suit with a dotted tie. The image captures him from the chest up and he is looking directly at the camera with a serene expression. The photograph has a soft focus, typical of the era, and is marked by Harris & Ewing, indicating the studio that took the photo.
Louis Brandeis, circa 1916

Justice Louis Brandeis Biography

While studying at the Harvard Law School, Louis Brandeis took courses with an openly anti-Semitic professor. One day, Louis, carrying his lunch tray, sat beside the professor in the university dining room. Displaying his prejudice, the professor told Louis that a pig and a bird should not eat together. Louis, maintaining his composure, replied, “Don’t worry, professor. I’ll fly away,” and moved to another table.

In another incident, the professor continued his antagonism and asked Louis a question during a test. He asked, “If you found a bag of wisdom and a bag of money on the street, which one would you take?” Louis replied, “The one with the money, of course.” Attempting to stereotype Louis as greedy, the professor said he would have chosen wisdom. Louis cleverly responded, “Each one takes what he doesn’t have.”

Louis would graduate from Harvard Law in 1877 at the top of his class with a record GPA. That record would stand for about eight decades.

Louis was brilliant, witty, fearless, and these experiences foreshadowed the tenacity and resilience he would later bring to his legal career, where he would become known as “the people’s attorney” for his commitment to public causes, pro bono work for labor and workers’ rights, and efforts in defending and shaping laws for the benefit of working people. About this role, Louis would write,

“The public is often inadequately represented or wholly unrepresented. That presents a condition of great unfairness to the public. As a result, many bills pass in our legislatures which would not have become law if the public interest had been fairly represented…. Those of you who feel drawn to that profession may rest assured that you will find in it an opportunity for usefulness probably unequaled. There is a call upon the legal profession to do a great work for this country.”

After working for years in the private sector as an attorney, in 1916, Louis was nominated to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. The debate over Louis’s appointment was so intense that it led to an unprecedented event: for the first time, the Senate Judiciary Committee conducted a public hearing on a nomination. This allowed individuals to testify before the committee, presenting arguments for and against confirming Louis. He was confirmed and became a Justice.

In his role, Louis was known for his skepticism towards unrestricted governmental power and monopolistic economic activities. He championed federalism, allowing state legislatures to address varying needs. And he stood for the importance of free speech, amongst other issues.

Louis retired from the Supreme Court in 1939 and passed away two years later in 1941.

“People’s Attorney, Justice Louis Brandeis” Notes

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Click here to read a snapshot biography of another Supreme Court Justice, Byron White.

To cite: “People’s Attorney, Justice Louis Brandeis.” Published by Historical Snapshots.

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