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Brandeis, Louis D.


In November 1931, as the American economy was sinking into frightening decline, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Dembitz Brandeis (November 13, 1856–October 5, 1941) turned seventy-five. Behind him was an illustrious career as a prominent Boston attorney, a leading reformer active in a dozen progressive crusades, a close adviser to Woodrow Wilson, and, after 1914, the leader of the American Zionist movement. He had been on the Supreme Court since 1916, and had earned a reputation as an eloquent defender of civil liberties, a champion of the rights of labor, a supporter of state and local prerogatives against centralized federal authority, and a bitter foe of "the curse of bigness," both in business and in government. By the time of the Great Depression he had transcended much of the controversy that had characterized his turbulent years as a social activist, and he enjoyed nearly universal respect and admiration as a wise elder statesman. Franklin D. Roosevelt occasionally referred to him as "Isaiah."

His activities during the 1930s centered in three general areas. First, he maintained his interest in the Zionist project of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He paid close attention to Jewish affairs, assiduously studied Palestine developments, and grew increasingly worried about British policy there. He was one of the earliest to see the dangers to Jews in the rise of Adolf Hitler. Second, of course, he continued his work on the Supreme Court until his resignation in February 1939. Although he joined in declaring some key New Deal measures unconstitutional, he was numbered among the Court's liberal wing. One of his most significant opinions in this period was in Erie v. Tompkins (1938), which limited the authority of federal courts and enhanced the judicial authority of the states. Although Brandeis admired Roosevelt personally, he was opposed to the president's attempt, in 1937, to "pack" the Supreme Court.

Finally, Brandeis played an extremely important role in the spirited debates raging around the formation of New Deal policy. He did this, in part, by utilizing extensive informal channels of influence—through Felix Frankfurter and Frankfurter's many disciples, through numerous private conversations with major and minor New Deal officials, and even, occasionally, through direct and indirect contacts with President Roosevelt himself. Soon Brandeis came to be regarded as the symbolic leader of that wing of New Deal thought that believed in imposing limitations on federal authority, avoiding centralization at the expense of local autonomy, and enhancing free market competition rather than relying upon federal measures that assumed and accepted the inevitability of large-scale production. Many historians of this period refer to those in Washington who held these views as Brandeisians or neo-Brandeisians.



Dawson, Nelson Lloyd. Louis D. Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, and the New Deal. 1980.

Purcell, Edward A., Jr. Brandeis and the Progressive Constitution: Erie, the Judicial Power, and the Politics of the Federal Courts in Twentieth-Century America. 2000.

Strum, Philippa. Louis D. Brandeis: Justice for the People. 1984.

Urofsky, Melvin I., and David W. Levy, eds., The Letters of Louis D. Brandeis, Vol. 5: Elder Statesman, 1921–1941. 1978.

David W. Levy

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