Cardozo, Benjamin N. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

As Supreme Court justice, Cardozo advocated a philosophy of law based on life experience and a theory of justice that needs to account for a changing social, economic, and technological reality.

Cardozo’s father, Albert Cardozo, was a successful lawyer elected to the New York state supreme court. However, he was forced to resign in response to charges of undue favors toward Tammany Hall cohorts. The younger Cardozo lived much of his judicial and personal life attempting to whitewash that family stain. His was a life of extreme probity and personal puritanism. For example, Cardozo conscientiously avoided owning stock shares in any company for fear that it might bias him in some case, even indirectly. Cardozo entered Columbia College at age fifteen, then attended Columbia University Law School.Hoover, Herbert;nominations to the Court

Judicial Career

For twenty-two years, Cardozo practiced business law, becoming a highly successful trial lawyer who specialized in appellate litigation. Although not involved in partisan politics, he was a progressive Democrat who was nominated by an anti-Tammany Fusion coalition, winning election to the New York supreme court in 1913. Almost immediately afterward, he was shifted to the court of appeals, to which he was elected in 1917.

Benjamin N. Cardozo

(Harris and Ewing/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

In 1927 Cardozo was elected chief judge of the court of appeals, with strong bipartisan support. Because New York state was the commercial hub and the court was staffed with generally outstanding jurists, the court of appeals was widely recognized as the most distinguished common-law tribunal in the nation. Cardozo was one of the founders and an active member of the prestigious American Law Institute. He lectured and published extensively.

Cardozo was so well regarded that in 1932 he was recommended to President Herbert Hoover for appointment to the Supreme Court. Politically, his selection was highly unusual in that the Court already had two New Yorkers and one JewJews;on the Court[Court]; and on top of that, Hoover was a Republican. However, based on his outstanding reputation, Cardozo won unanimous approval.

Judicial Philosophy and Impact

In both style and process, Cardozo was like his personal hero, Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom he replaced on the bench. Although politically he was the darling of the Progressives for challenging the imperialistic power of the big corporations judicially Cardozo was a pragmatist. He was skeptical of broad abstract principles and law as simply logical deduction from previous cases; rather, he thought that each case had to be judged in light of the particular circumstances. Cardozo argued that judges should look at the realities of the world economic, political, and social and not impose their own abstract ideas of justice. In general, Cardozo attempted to make the law adapt to what reasonable people would expect from a contract, thus making the law fit human needs and not imposing alien concepts.

Substantively, he is most noted for his decisions in the area of torts specifically, liability, negligence, and contracts. Generally, he expanded the sphere of liability and made the process easier for injured parties. In contract law, he helped instill fairness into ambiguous contracts. Cardozo generally believed in allowing the legislature discretion in economic regulation. He was a mainstay in supporting the constitutionality of New DealNew Deal legislation. He wrote the majority opinion in the seminal Social Security decisions that turned the Court around, Helvering v. Davis[case]Helvering v. Davis[Helvering v. Davis] (1937) and Steward Machine Co. v. Davis[case]Steward Machine Co. v. Davis[Steward Machine Co. v. Davis] (1937). In civil liberties, especially their applicability to states, Cardozo believed in selective incorporation. Those rights that were fundamental, such as free speech, were imposed on the states. In Palko v. Connecticut[case]Palko v. Connecticut[Palko v. Connecticut] (1937), he ruled that a second trial in the state, free of errors, did not deny due process.

Cardozo wrote five books, two of which became standards. The most enduring, The Nature of the Judicial Process (1921), was the first and arguably still the best book written on how judges actually make decisions. The respect and admiration for Cardozo both personal and intellectual helped translate his ideas, including the emphasis on case studies rather than abstract textbook concepts, into dominant trends. Sixty years after his death, Cardozo was still one of the most frequently cited justices, his decisions regularly used in law texts, especially in torts.

Further Reading
  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Cardozo, Benjamin N. The Nature of the Judicial Process. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1921.
  • Hellman, George S. Benjamin N. Cardozo: American Judge. New York: Russell & Russell, 1940.
  • Kaufman, Andrew L. Cardozo. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Parrish, Michael E. The Hughes Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2002.
  • Polenberg, Richard. The World of Benjamin Cardozo: Personal Values and the Judicial Process. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.
  • Posner, Richard A. Cardozo: A Study in Reputation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Contracts clause

Helvering v. Davis

Holmes, Oliver Wendell

Hughes, Charles Evans

New Deal

Palko v. Connecticut

Steward Machine Co. v. Davis

Categories: History Content