Brandeis’s focus on the facts of the case was part of a philosophy of sociological jurisprudence. His sympathy for the weak and poor and opposition to big corporate and government control helped shape the political response to both the excesses of corporate America and government incursions against personal liberties.
Except for three years spent in Central Europe, Brandeis’s formative years were not much different from those of other successful middle-class youth. He came from a very tightly knit, hard-working Bohemian German
Louis D. Brandeis
The practice flourished, a testimony to Brandeis’s skills as a lawyer: mastery of detail, logic of argument, clarity of communication, and focus on goals. His reputation spread and his wealth grew. Along the way, however, he became interested in protecting the rights of those who were disadvantaged and suffered from the damages caused by rapid industrialization and the immense power of the new corporate giants.
Much of Brandeis’s work revolved around one central idea the evil of bigness. He was convinced that excessive size and power were evil and incorrect. Bigness led to abuse of power and to corruption; moreover, it was inefficient, not just for the individual company but also for the society because it stifled competition.
For Brandeis, the issue was not simply economic it was a moral crusade. Early on, in Boston, he started to fight big corporations: the railroad company that sought to monopolize the local railway, big banks, and utility companies. As his practice grew, Brandeis became more involved in public law, offering his service for free a very uncommon practice then. His success in the courtroom led to wider contacts and to cases across the county, of sufficient repute that he was called the “people’s lawyer.” In one such case, Muller v. Oregon
Brandeis’s success in attacking big corporations and big government brought him into contact with leading Progressives
The second major passion was Zionism. Raised without formal religion and with little identification as a Jew, Brandeis became committed to Zionism as an adult. Over the course of his lifetime, he became the most well-known leader of the American Zionist movement and a major activist on the world scene. His commitment to a Jewish state was built on his sympathy for the poor persecuted Jews
Brandeis challenged and eventually convinced the Court to stop using the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to strike down economic legislation, including regulation of child labor, as an infringement on the freedom of contract. He dissented in a number of cases that struck down New Deal legislation; again, the Court came around to his position. Ironically, Brandeis personally opposed much of this legislation because it created too strong a national government.
Brandeis also helped reverse the rule whereby federal courts could not ignore state law in favor of federal common law, in Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins
In the area of civil liberties, however, Brandeis did believe that the Constitution set out strictures on the government that also applied to the states, especially in the matter of speech. It was not the government’s business to regulate what the people heard; Brandeis believed that the people were eventually capable of making the right decisions.
Dissenting in Gilbert v. Minnesota
Brandeis’s reputation and words long outlived him on the Court. Few justices had as strong an impact on the guidelines for preparing legal briefs and the acceptance of the relevance of sociological facts. Years later, his vision of personal liberty became accepted as the dominant constitutional standard.
Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004. Dawson, Nelson L., ed. Brandeis and America. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1989. Mason, Alpheus T. Brandeis: A Free Man’s Life. New York: Viking, 1946. Paper, Lewis J. Brandeis. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983. Parrish, Michael E. The Hughes Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2002. Renstrom, Peter G. The Taft Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003. Strum, Philippa. Brandeis: Beyond Progressivism. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1993. Urofsky, Melvin. A Mind of One Piece: Brandeis and American Reform. New York: Scribners, 1971. Vile, John R., ed. Great American Judges: An Encyclopedia. Foreword by Kermit L. Hall Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins
Muller v. Oregon
Olmstead v. United States
Whitney v. California