Louis Brandeis: Genius of Justice

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Exactly how smart do you have to be to have earned the single highest grade point average in the history of Harvard Law? I admit, there’s no good way to quantify this, but the technical answer is “pretty freaking smart.”

Behold, Louis Brandeis, a man of unimpeachable esteem with a record of accomplishment fairly unequaled in either education, law, or public policy. His incredible résumé is girded by a life dedicated to the causes of progressivism and social justice. Many of the ideas he introduced into the legal realm are seen as cherished and inalienable liberties today. Apologies in advance for cherry-picking details, but fully capturing the achievements of this man in under one thousand words is pretty much impossible.

Louis Leaves Louisville

Louis Brandeis was born in 1856 in Louisville, Kentucky. His parents had recently emigrated from Bohemia to escape anti-Jewish rioting and, for a brief time, found respite in bluegrass country. But the family’s abolitionist sympathies did not sit well with many of their neighbors, particularly with the approach of the Civil War. As tensions mounted, the Brandeis family ventured to Indiana.

It is thus that Louis was introduced to the price of activism from a young age. His family encouraged the pursuit of knowledge and reason, and Louis demonstrated a deep intellectual curiosity. He was an aggressively committed student, entering Harvard Law School at the age of eighteen and, as noted above, graduating with a record GPA that remained unbroken for eighty years. So committed was Brandeis that his feverish reading schedule and reliance on dim, flickering gaslights began to damage his eyesight. Undeterred, he paid his fellow students to read his materials aloud to him as he committed their principles to memory.

Boston Bound

In 1879, after passing the Missouri bar exam, Brandeis partnered with Harvard classmate Samuel D. Warren and established a firm in Boston (note: Nutter McClennen & Fish remains in operation today). As the firm gained its footing, Brandeis also accepted a gig as the law clerk to Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Horace Gray. So well regarded was Brandeis that Massachusetts simply admitted him to the state bar without an examination. Over the ensuing decade, his firm would achieve great success, allowing Brandeis to increasingly focus his attention on causes that he felt were important. This largely consisted of pitching legal battles against large corporations and advocating for those unable to do so for themselves.

Inventing Privacy

After a decade of partnership, Brandeis departed his old firm and entered fully into a life in public advocacy. Providing services wherever needed without compensation, Brandeis fought tirelessly against monopolies, public corruption, and the negative byproducts of mass consumerism.

It was also during this period that he authored some of the legal concepts that we hold as inherent today. In 1890, Brandeis and Warren together published a piece in the Harvard Law Review called “Right to Privacy”. This groundbreaking article introduced, defined, and defended the notion that we essentially have the right to be free from the invasion of privacy.

Too Many Causes To Name

Seriously. The list of progressive interests that Brandeis pursued is simply too extensive to fully capture here. Among the highlights, he fought against the monopolization of the railroads, supported the nascent conservation movement, and promoted investigation of the deplorable living conditions in public poor-houses.

He also advocated for strong first amendment rights, meaningful consumer protections, and widespread corporate transparency. And in what may perhaps be the most prescient disposition for a man from his time and place, Brandeis expressed extreme suspicion of mass consumerism, conspicuous consumption, and the manipulation of advertising.

And in one of his greatest contributions to the pursuit of social justice, Brandeis can be basically credited for the invention of pro bono legal service, a gesture which has given meaningful legal support to untold individuals long since his passing.

Louis Supreme

As Brandeis worked to disrupt the growing influence of corporate monopolies in everyday American life, his causes overlapped with 1912’s Democratic presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson. Indeed, the two men admired each other immensely. As Brandeis campaigned on Wilson’s behalf, Wilson adopted Brandeis’ phrase “regulated competition” as a centerpiece of his proposed economic program.

Brandeis would consequently play a direct role in helping Wilson to develop the Federal Reserve Act during his first year in the presidency. Then, in spite of vociferous objection both from corporate raiders who felt threatened by the radical progressive and by outspoken anti-Semitism (some of which came directly from former US President and Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft), Brandeis was appointed to the Supreme Court.

Dawn of Justice

Ultimately, his qualifications and merits lifted Brandeis above controversy and into the highest court, where he served faithfully from 1916 to 1939. Retiring just two years before his passing, Brandeis used his seat to advance the causes of free speech, privacy, labor rights and a host of other landmark decisions that earned him a reputation as the “Robin Hood” of law. He is almost universally regarded as among the fairest and finest justices to serve the Supreme Court.

In 1948, a University bearing his name was founded in Waltham, Massachusetts just outside of Boston as a non-sectarian, Jewish community-sponsored, co-ed institution. Today, Brandeis boasts an enrollment of more than 5,500 students and a reputation nearly as vaunted as its namesake.

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