Louis D. Brandeis

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Brandeis was a leading social reformer from 1897 to 1916, gaining the unofficial title of the “people’s attorney”; he was the leader of the American Zionist movement from 1914 until 1939 and served as Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1916 until his retirement in 1939.

Early Life

The son of Adolph and Frederika (Dembitz) Brandeis, refugees from Prague, Czechoslovakia, Louis Dembitz Brandeis was born on November 13, 1856, in Louisville, Kentucky. His parents and relatives had fled the failed liberal revolutions of 1848, and he grew up in an atmosphere that was intellectual, open-minded, progressive, and dedicated to freedom. This heritage was evident throughout his career.

At fifteen, Brandeis was graduated from Louisville public schools and then lived and studied in Europe for three years. In 1875, he entered Harvard Law School. Although lacking a college degree, he completed the three-year program in only two years, being graduated in 1877 with the highest grades in the law school’s history.

Life’s Work

Brandeis’ career centered on the law and public service. His law practice was enormously successful, and his early clients included major railroads and manufacturing companies. In 1889, Brandeis argued, and won, his first case before the United States Supreme Court, on behalf of the Wisconsin Central Railroad. In 1890, Brandeis and his former partner Samuel Warren jointly published a path-breaking article in the Harvard Law Review, “The Right to Privacy.” The article helped create a new concept in law, one which Brandeis later supported from the bench.

By the mid-1890’s, Brandeis was earning more than seventy thousand dollars a year—a large sum in those days. Through frugal living and careful investments, he became a millionaire by 1900. As his wealth grew, so did his generosity; between 1905 and 1939, he gave away approximately one and a half million dollars. Brandeis also used his wealth to free himself from the necessity of taking on paying clients. In 1891, when he married his second cousin Alice Goldmark, the two decided to dedicate their lives to public service. By 1895, he had begun to devote most of his energies to public interest work. Brandeis not only worked without a fee but also paid money to his law firm so that his partners would not suffer from his pro bono activities. Brandeis brought his expertise as a corporate lawyer to social causes.

In 1892, Brandeis was profoundly affected when plant owners used armed guards against workers in the Homestead Steel Strike. Brandeis later wrote, “I think it was the affair at Homestead which first set me to thinking seriously about the labor problem. It took the shock of that battle, where organized capital hired a private army to shoot at organized labor for resisting an arbitrary cut in wages, to turn my mind definitely toward a searching study of the relations of labor to industry.”

After 1892, Brandeis became known as the “people’s attorney” for his willingness to take public interest cases for free or for a very small fee. In 1904, as the unpaid counsel, Brandeis convinced Boston officials and the gas company to adopt a sliding scale for gas prices that guaranteed the company a minimum of seven percent profit on its assets while lowering rates to consumers from a dollar to ninety cents per thousand cubic feet of gas. The sliding scale formula allowed the company to raise its dividends by one percent for every five cents it reduced the price of gas. This built-in incentive for increased efficiency and lower prices brought the cost of gas to eighty cents within a year, while return on the gas company’s investment rose to nine percent.

In 1906, Brandeis resigned from the board of directors of the United Shoe Manufacturing Company when the company tried to monopolize the industry and used illegal methods to stop competition. Years later, Brandeis testified against United Shoe at public hearings and served as counsel for competitors seeking to prevent a monopoly of the industry. Eventually, the shoe monopoly was broken and fair competition restored. Brandeis also investigated corruption in the life insurance industry. Brandeis helped create savings-bank life insurance in Massachusetts, which provided low-cost life insurance through state-regulated banks. As with gas prices, Brandeis showed that enlightened and regulated capitalism could work for the benefit of all. The banks made money from selling the insurance, the customers gained safe insurance at reasonable prices, and in order to compete, the major insurance companies lowered their premiums. Other states adopted the program, and by 1914 Brandeis estimated that the various reforms saved Americans twenty million dollars a year.

Starting in 1905, Brandeis led a coalition of businessmen, civil leaders, and reformers in fighting the New Haven Railroad’s attempt to monopolize all rail traffic in New England by acquiring its main competition, the Boston and Maine Railroad. Brandeis opposed monopolies because he believed they were inefficient and harmful to consumers. The struggle against the New Haven monopoly lasted until 1914, when the Wilson Administration forced the New Haven Railroad to give up the Boston and Maine. During this struggle, public attacks on Brandeis became personal. Newspapers controlled by those with financial interests in the New Haven Railroad pictured him as “King Louis of New England.” Anti-Semitic caricatures of Brandeis falsely accused him of corruption.

In 1914, Brandeis published Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It. This extremely influential book stimulated the passage of some banking regulations. Brandeis’ major recommendations were ignored, however, until after the failure of thousands of banks in the 1930’s. Only at that point did Congress adopt the kind of legislation for which Brandeis argued in 1914.

The pro bono cases profoundly affected Brandeis’ life. Muller v. Oregon (1908) involved an Oregon statute that limited the working day to ten hours for women employees. This statute reflected a national movement to limit hours for all workers, prohibit child labor, and create minimum wages. In 1905 the Supreme Court, in Lochner v. New York, had struck down a similar statute regulating working hours for men.

In arguing the Muller case, Brandeis had few legal precedents with which to work. Lochner v. New York, the most obvious precedent, was something Brandeis had to overcome....

(The entire section is 2715 words.)