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Biography does justice to legacy of Louis Brandeis

Louis D. Brandeis (1856-1941) is one of my heroes. What a difference he made in the world! Brandeis served 23 years as a Supreme Court justice (1916-1939), and was earlier a lawyer, reformer, Zionist and judge. However, he was more than the sum of his occupations. Melvin I. Urofsky reflects on his life in this magisterial biography, citing Brandeis' moral courage, love of America and respect for the role of the citizen in all he did. Brandeis had a "Jeffersonian" faith in the power of reason.

There hasn't been a biography of Brandeis written for 25 years, and Urofsky's work is top of the mark: comprehensive, scholarly and sensitive. The author, professor of Law & Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University, is an old Brandeis hand, having earlier edited Brandeis' letters with David W. Levy.

Brandeis accomplished so much because he had a combination of idealism and pragmatism. Those two words don't normally go together. Brandeis, however, marshaled pertinent facts in his cases to elements of law, an almost unbeatable combination. He liked to quote Goethe, "one is master through small details."
Brandeis, the progressive and moralist, had little time for relativists. He knew what he believed, once telling his brother-in-law, that "there should be no distinction between what is 'legally right' and what is 'morally right.' " Outside his family and a few friends who loved him dearly, he was viewed as austere and demanding.

David Riesman, one of his clerks, and later a teacher at the University of Buffalo Law School, thought Brandeis the ideal judge. However, Riesman wrote that Brandeis possessed "severe limitations (that) will grapple with me throughout life." Riesman became a sociologist and taught at Harvard where I met him, writing "The Lonely Crowd" in 1950.
A footnote: Brandeis and Riesman didn't get along. Both respected the other intellectually, but Brandeis took it personally when Riesman left his clerkship after only one year to return to Boston to work -- and because, he said, he had season tickets to the Boston Symphony.

Riesman later confessed that "this was a totally frivolous and unworthy consideration."
No one would ever call Brandeis a "man of the people." In his Zionist work, many compatriots wanted a "mensch", one who could walk and talk about the familiar things in life, one with a Jewish soul, or "yiddishkeit." Instead, Brandeis was an "organizational disciplinarian" who had organized American Zionists after World War I. However, he could not fulfill every aspiration of the group.
This volume is full of artful explanations of Brandeis' involvement in various cases where he fought against big business. These included the merger of New England transportation with J.P. Morgan & Company and, earlier, his successful reformation of the insurance businesses, where he exposed Equitable Life, the Prudential and New York Life, and their fraudulent selling of insurance to the poor.

"The People's Lawyer . . tough and realistic," also championed savings bank life insurance as a corrective to big company abuses.

Where did Louis Brandeis get this imposing sense of morality that enabled him to take on giants early in his career? Brandeis came from a German-Jewish family that had emigrated to Louisville, Ky. His mother wrote about how she raised her four children in her memoir. She wanted them to imbibe "a pure spirit and the highest ideals as to morals and love."

The parents, Adolph and Frederika, raised Fannie, Amy, Louis and Alfred as neither Jewish nor Christian. Urofsky writes that mother and Louis "subscribed to the Judaism of the prophets, with its exalted moral teachings and idealism, and not to the Judaism of the priests, with its emphasis on rules and rituals." Even though he was a nonpracticing Jew, he became head of the American Zionist movement and worked to build a Jewish nation in Palestine.
Louis Brandeis married a second cousin, Alice Goldmark. Poor health from time to time did not deter her from being Louis' soul-mate. When away, Louis wrote to her every day, as he did to their two daughters, Alice and Susan.

Louis and Alice had money, but they were unpretentious people. They liked small dinners with interesting people at home. They avoided society. Brandeis gave much of his money away to causes he thought worthy.
Brandeis made mistakes, but not many moral missteps. Perhaps his biggest error was in not following his own advice in the case of the United Shoe Machinery Company, in which he had an investment. His lapse of judgment came when he defended the company's monopolistic practices -- something he abhorred. The issue became part of an attack against him in the Senate in 1916, when he was nominated for the Supreme Court.
Brandeis was nominated to the Court by President Wilson, to whom he gave considerable advice before and after his appointment. Much of what Brandeis did in terms of advice to the executive and Congress would not be permitted today.

In the early years of the 20th century, the tradition on the Supreme Court was different.

Being the stickler that he was, Brandeis checked with former president and later chief justice of the court, William Howard Taft, on the appropriateness of his activities. (Remember the trouble that Lyndon Johnson's appointee, Abe Fortas, had in the late 1960s on this score when he accepted private retainers that led to his resignation.)
In summary, Brandeis' legal initiatives have great practical value to every citizen of the United States. He is credited with improving the jurisprudence of free speech, the right to privacy and the doctrine of incorporation, the venue by which the Bill of Rights was applied to the states. Brandeis also pioneered pro bono publico work, for the good of the public.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a colleague on the court and a theorist of sociological jurisprudence, declared that the life of the law was experience, not logic. Melvin Urofsky demonstrates how Brandeis lived and carried out this legal perspective of his colleague seamlessly, with a "mind of one piece" as Paul A. Freund, another Brandeis clerk, puts it.

Michael D. Langan is a former official in the Treasury and Labor Departments and a former headmaster of Nardin Academy.

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>Louis D. Brandeis: A Life

By Melvin I. Urofsky
Pantheon
976 pages, $40

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