Benjamin Nathan Cardozo
Article abstract: Cardozo’s twenty-five-year career on the New York Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court made him one of the most admired and respected judges in American history. As a scholar, he illuminated the nature of the judicial process; as a judge, he helped transform American law to meet the needs of a changing, modern society.
Benjamin Nathan Cardozo was born in New York City on May 24, 1870, to one of the most prominent Sephardic Jewish families in the United States. Ancestors on both sides could be traced back to the seventeenth century and included distinguished rabbis, educators, businessmen, lawyers, and writers, including the poet Emily Lazarus, whose words grace the Statue of Liberty. His mother, Rebecca Nathan Cardozo, was noted for her beauty and culture. She was descended from a family that had made important contributions to the American Revolutionary cause in the eighteenth century. His father, Albert, was one of the most brilliant judges on the New York State Supreme Court.
Yet Benjamin’s youth was marked by a number of tragedies which profoundly influenced the course of his life. Shortly after his birth, an uncle for whom he had been named, Benjamin Nathan, was murdered in his New York City town house under mysterious circumstances. When he was three years old, his father was forced to resign from the court amid charges of corrupt involvement with the infamous Boss Tweed and the notorious financier Jay Gould. Six years later, Cardozo’s beloved mother died, leaving the eldest daughter, Ellen, to care for Benjamin, his twin sister, Emily, an older brother, Albert, and two other daughters.
The resulting publicity left an already private family more determined to isolate itself from the outside world. Thus, Benjamin received his early education through private tutors at home. One of these was the famous writer Horatio Alger. He easily passed the entrance exams for Columbia University, graduating in 1889, at the top of his class. He then entered Columbia Law School but left after two years to begin legal practice (at that time a law school degree was not a universal requirement for admission to the bar).
Cardozo’s father died in 1885. Benjamin never married and continued to live with his older sister, Ellen, until her death in 1929. Sheltered and in frail health as a child, he grew to be reserved and almost painfully shy as an adult. At the same time, his charm, humility, and gentleness were almost legendary. He was of medium stature, his face characterized by an almost feminine softness, with pale blue eyes beneath bushy eyebrows and a shock of pale, fine hair.
Cardozo began his career in law working in his brother Albert’s New York City law firm. His deceptively gentle personality hid an advocate of remarkable persuasiveness, and he soon established a reputation as an outstanding corporate and commercial attorney. Although he stayed out of politics and bar activities, his name was put forth as a judicial candidate in 1913 by reformers anxious to wrest control of New York government from the Tammany Hall political machine. Cardozo narrowly won election to the state supreme court (the intermediate appellate court in New York). Shortly after he assumed his position on this court, the governor appointed him to a temporary vacancy on the state’s highest court, the court of appeals. In 1917, he was made a regular member of that tribunal and was elected with bipartisan support to a fourteen-year term.
Within a few years, Cardozo became the dominant intellectual force on the court of appeals, and in 1926 became its chief judge as well. He also helped solidify that court’s reputation as one of the preeminent state high courts in the nation. The primary work of such courts involved issues of private law, such as contract liability, commercial relations, wills and estates, property, and torts (private wrongs). It was in these areas that Cardozo made many of his most important contributions, primarily by reformulating many of the formal doctrines and precedents of the nineteenth century common law to fit the changing realities of an urban, industrial, and increasingly complex society.
Several examples from among Cardozo’s many opinions illustrate this process. Perhaps the classic example of Cardozo jurisprudence was his 1916 opinion in the case MacPherson v. Buick Motor Company. Mr. MacPherson was driving his motor car when one of the wheels, later proved to be made of defective wood, crumbled, causing MacPherson to be thrown from the car and injured. Under traditional legal doctrine, MacPherson should have sued the dealer who had sold him the defective car, not the manufacturer, with whom he had had no dealings. Through clever reasoning and eloquent language, however, Cardozo gave the plaintiff a cause of action against the third-party manufacturer. This decision marked a whole new direction in product liability law, for now manufacturers of products, increasingly important in a society that was rapidly becoming consumer oriented, were now on notice that they must exercise care in the production of their goods or suffer the consequences.
Another of Cardozo’s famous court of appeals decisions involved a rather remarkable set of factual circumstances. A railroad conductor on a commuter train...
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