On this day: Louis D. Brandeis dies

October 5 1941: The first Jewish member of the United States Supreme Court dies at the age of 84.


With the appointment of Elana Kagan this year there are now three Jewish judges sitting on America’s highest court, and there have been eight in history. But Louis Dembitz Brandeis was the first.

Born in 1856, in Louisville, Kentucky, his parents came to America from Europe. They sent their son for education in Germany He never attended college but managed to gain entrance to Harvard Law School, becoming one of its youngest students to be admitted to the bar.

He became a lawyer in Boston, making a name for himself as the champion of the underdog with fights for minimum wage laws.

He campaigned for the election of President Woodrow Wilson, and was even said to have been offered a cabinet role but turned it down. However In 1916 he was asked by President Wilson to sit on the Supreme Court, and he accepted. His nomination was not without complication, with opponents condemning his radical politics.

As a Supreme Court judge Brandeis fought for civil liberties and defended the right to free speech. Outside of his legal life, he was a giant of early American Zionism, taking on the role of Chairperson of the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs.

A dispute with Chaim Weizmann saw him withdraw from the forefront of Zionism, but it never stopped being of importance to him and in he left half of his estate to the cause of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

He stepped down from the Supreme Court in 1939 and died of a heart attack two years later. In 1948 Brandeis University, near Boston, was founded in his honour.

Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, said of him: “He will remain an inspiration…to each of us who have been privileged to work under his direction and to feel the magic of his prophetic ardour.”

What the JC said: Zionists had always been able to turn to Louis Brandeis for wise counsel and lofty moral outlook. He was the greatest Jew the American community had so far produced…there could be no doubt that his views carried great weight in the cousels of his country in the critical months before America’s entry into the last war.

See more from the JC archives here

Last updated: 2:39pm, November 2 2010