A Hero of American Justice

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Louis Brandeis, Washington, D.C., 1930s

I met Justice Brandeis once, when I was about thirteen years old. His grandson was in my class at school, and I was invited to stay with his family at their summer house in Chatham, on Cape Cod. One day my classmate’s mother said, “We are going to visit the justice,” and we all went to Brandeis’s house nearby. He was sitting alone in a chair on the lawn, a formidable figure with a shock of white hair and blazing, deep-set eyes.

That was long ago, but I have never forgotten the image. Brandeis died sixty-eight years ago. His struggles against government corruption and financial concentration, which made him famous before he went on the bench, are lost to history. But his faith in a free, informed public remains a beacon of democracy.

We see him now as a great mind, perhaps the most brilliant of all Supreme Court justices; as a crusader against oversized institutions; and as a luminously eloquent exponent of free speech and privacy—“the right to be let alone.” But he was much more complicated: more conflicted, more interesting. At the beginning of his biography, Melvin Urofsky poses these questions:

How could the man who waxed eloquent on the limits of any one person to direct large operations …micromanage the American Zionist movement for several years? How could someone who felt so passionately about so many things appear to so many people as cold, austere, and indifferent? How often did his moral absolutism shade over into self-righteousness and intolerance of opposition? How does one square some of his extrajudicial activities with his own professed views on the limits of judicial office?

Urofsky, a professor emeritus of history at Virginia Commonwealth University, does not give final answers to those questions. Nobody could. But he explores the main themes and contradictions of Brandeis’s life and gives us a book that is utterly fascinating.

The Jewish question, for example. Brandeis was famously the target of anti-Semitism, but he lived an essentially non-Jewish life. He often had a pork chop for breakfast. From his birth in 1856 until 1914, Urofsky says, Brandeis never set foot in a synagogue. Then, on August 30, 1914, he was invited to a meeting in New York where the straggling leaders of the Zionist movement in America considered what could be done for Zionists suffering on both sides of the war in Europe. Brandeis listened—and took over the meeting and the movement.

He envisioned a future Jewish Palestine as a secular society that lived according to Jeffersonian values, with small farms and enterprises. One wonders what he would make of what Israel has become: a powerful, militarized state that, out of nationalism or necessity (depending on one’s view), suppresses and seizes the land of the Palestinians—whom neither Brandeis nor other early Zionists took into account.

Brandeis was a close friend of his law partner, Samuel Warren, coauthor of the seminal 1890 …

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