Louis D. Bran­deis: A Life

Melvin I. Urofsky
  • Review
By – August 24, 2011
Selec­tion of a new Supreme Court mem­ber over the past thir­ty years often demon­strat­ed how fraught with con­tro­ver­sy and com­pe­ti­tion between polit­i­cal par­ties the process is. Con­firm­ing the President’s nom­i­nee has been rel­a­tive­ly unre­mark­able, yet it has been rare for a new Jus­tice to devel­op so endur­ing a record that it influ­ences the future. Louis D. Bran­deis was an excep­tion, for his lega­cy was based also on his dis­tin­guished extra-legal activ­i­ties. 

Melvin I. Urofsky’s admi­ra­tion for Bran­deis is evi­dent in his com­pre­hen­sive biog­ra­phy, Louis D. Bran­deis: A Life. He describes the diverse ele­ments in Bran­deis’ life and career, as a major con­trib­u­tor to the devel­op­ment of both the the­o­ry and the prac­tice of law, as a vision­ary labor arbi­tra­tor, as a trust­ed advis­er to Pres­i­dents, as a respect­ed Zion­ist leader, and of course as a Supreme Court Jus­tice whose opin­ions and in par­tic­u­lar his dis­sents became part of con­sti­tu­tion­al dia­logue and often insti­tu­tion­al­ized as law. But it is the high moral stan­dards he demand­ed of those in pub­lic life,” and Bran­deis’ high­ly moral per­son­al behav­ior, that enlight­en the read­er. 

Urof­sky con­trasts many of Bran­deis’ activ­i­ties and achieve­ments with our expe­ri­ences in the mod­ern era. For exam­ple, in cit­ing Bran­deis’ let­ter to his broth­er to con­vey his feel­ings about Pres­i­dent William Howard Taft (“The sit­u­a­tion is now pret­ty tense and my dis­gust for the admin­is­tra­tion is now unbound­ed”), Urof­sky adds, In an era before the likes of Richard Nixon’s Water­gate or George W. Bush’s claim of weapons of mass destruc­tion in Iraq, Amer­i­cans expect­ed their pres­i­dents, if not to tell the truth, at least not to lie to them.” Yet he also cau­tions against inter­pret­ing his subject’s actions and opin­ions through con­tem­po­rary eyes, since Bran­deis lived in a par­tic­u­lar time and place.” Such a per­spec­tive helps the mod­ern read­er com­pre­hend Bran­deis, but Urof­sky does more than mere­ly depict his subject’s life expe­ri­ences. He also ana­lyzes sig­nif­i­cant cas­es which came before the court dur­ing the twen­ty-three years (1916 – 39) Bran­deis served on the Supreme Court, and he fur­ther pro­vide a fas­ci­nat­ing view of how wide­ly Bran­deis influ­enced soci­ety in the chap­ters focused on Extra­ju­di­cial Activ­i­ties.” 

One of the char­ac­ter­is­tics that dis­tin­guished Bran­deis from his con­tem­po­raries was his ardent embrace of Zion­ism. In many ways, Urof­sky argues, it was for­tu­itous that Bran­deis lacked the reli­gious fer­vor gen­er­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Theodore Herzl’s vision of a Jew­ish home­land. The sus­pi­cion accord­ed to immi­grant groups in Amer­i­ca, the belief that their loy­al­ty to the new home­land would be dilut­ed, if not divid­ed, could have been coun­tered only by a leader whose com­mit­ment to Amer­i­ca could not be ques­tioned. Urof­sky writes, Only some­one who shared the ide­al­ism of Zion with­out the reli­gious com­po­nents could have devised” the plan for Pales­tine as a legal­ly secured home.” And Urof­sky reveals how Bran­deis wed­ded prag­ma­tism with ide­al­ism when he secret­ly pro­vid­ed at least $45,000 (to Haganah) to pur­chase arms so that the set­tlers could defend them­selves against Arab attacks.” 

This is an engross­ing book about a fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject. More than a man whose long life reflects a peri­od frozen in time, the Justice’s com­plex­i­ty and deter­mi­na­tion shaped his rep­u­ta­tion as a cit­i­zen who is remem­bered for his con­tri­bu­tions to the devel­op­ment of our soci­ety. And as a Jew, often fac­ing social ostracism, Bran­deis became an ear­ly builder” of a self-gov­erned haven for his peo­ple, while serv­ing his native coun­try with unam­bigu­ous loy­al­ty. This alone makes him rel­e­vant in our day.
Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

Discussion Questions