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January 28: “The People’s Lawyer”

Lawrence Bush
January 28, 2010

louis-brandeisLouis D. Brandeis was nominated to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court on this day in 1916. As an attorney and presidential advisor, Brandeis (born in 1856) was a strong advocate of labor rights, women’s rights, and anti-trust legislation. His notable early cases (many of which he pursued without compensation) fought railroad monopolies and helped to create the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Trade Commission and to sustain minimum-wage laws; his legal briefs and papers helped establish the tradition of “expert witnesses” and the “right to privacy.” Brandeis’s appointment to the Court was bitterly contested. The Wall Street Journal wrote, “In all the anti-corporation agitation of the past . . . where others were radical, [Brandeis] was rabid.” Nevertheless, on June 1, 1916, he became the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice by a 47-22 Senate vote. Brandeis served on the Court until 1939 and especially distinguished himself on issues of free speech, privacy and civil liberties. He also became the leading figure of American Zionism during World War I and helped establish the American Jewish Congress to represent Jewish interests at the Paris Peace Conference.

Instead of holding a position of independence between the wealthy and the people, prepared to curb the excesses of either, able lawyers have, to a large extent, allowed themselves to become adjuncts of great corporations and have neglected the obligation to use their powers for the protection of the people. We hear much of the 'corporation lawyer,' and far too little of the 'people's lawyer.'”—Louis Dembitz Brandeis

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.