The appointment of Louis D. Brandeis to the United States Supreme Court was not merely the crowning glory of an extraordinary career as a practicing lawyer and social activist. It was also the inauguration of an equally extraordinary career on the bench. In twenty-three years as a Justice, Brandeis acquired a stature and influence that few?before or since?could match. In part, this achievement reflected the fact that he was already a public figure when he ascended to the Court. But his skills as a jurist provided the principal explanation. He mastered details of procedure, remained diligent in researching the facts and law of the case, and, whatever the subject, devoted untold hours to make his opinions clear and logical. Perhaps the highest compliment came from colleagues who disagreed with his conclusions. "My, how I detest that man's ideas," Associate Justice GEORGE SUTHERLAND once observed. "But he is one of the greatest technical lawyers I have ever known."
Brandeis's opinions and votes on the Court were very much a product of his environment and experience. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, shortly before the CIVIL WAR, he grew up in a family that provided him with love and security. That background probably helped him in establishing skills as a tenacious lawyer in Boston, where he opened his office one year after graduating from Harvard Law School first in his class. Brandeis attained local and then national fame when he used his formidable talents to effect reform at the height of the Progressive movement in the early 1900s. He fought the establishment of a privately owned subway monopoly in Boston, was instrumental in developing a savings bank life insurance system to prevent exploitation of industrial workers by large insurance companies, developed the famed BRANDEIS BRIEF?a detailed compilation of facts and statistics?in defense of Oregon's maximum hour law for women, and even took on the legendary J. P. Morgan when the corporate magnate tried to monopolize New England's rail and steamship lines. Brandeis's renown as "the people's attorney" spread across the country when, in 1910, he led a team of lawyers in challenging Richard A. Ballinger's stewardship of the nation's natural resources as secretary of the interior in the administration of President WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT.
Because of Brandeis's well-known credentials as a lawyer who had single-handedly taken on the "trusts," WOODROW WILSON turned to him for advice in the presidential campaign of 1912. The relationship ripened, and after his election to the White House Wilson repeatedly called upon Brandeis for help in solving many difficult problems. Through these interactions Wilson came to appreciate Brandeis's keen intelligence and dedication to the public welfare. In January 1916 he nominated the Boston attorney to the Supreme Court. Brandeis was confirmed by the United States Senate almost six months later after a grueling and bitter fight.
For Brandeis, law was essentially a mechanism to shape man's social, economic, and political relations. In fulfilling that function, he believed, the law had to account for two basic principles: first, that the individual was the key force in society, and second, that individuals?no matter what their talents and aspirations?had only limited capabilities. As he explained to HAROLD LASKI, "Progress must proceed from the aggregate of the performances of individual men" and society should adjust its institutions "to the wee size of man and thus render possible his growth and development." At the same time, Brandeis did not want people coddled because of inherent limitations. Quite the contrary. People had to stretch themselves to fulfill their individual potentials.
In this context Brandeis abhorred what he often called "the curse of bigness." People, he felt, could not fully develop themselves if they did not have control of their lives. Individual control, however, was virtually impossible in a large institutional setting?whether it be a union, a CORPORATION, the government, or even a town. From this perspective, Brandeis remained convinced that democracy could be maintained only if citizens?and especially the most talented?returned to small communities in the hinterland and learned to manage their own affairs.
This commitment to individual development led Brandeis to assume a leadership position in the Zionist Movement in 1914 and retain it after he went on the Court. In Palestine, Brandeis believed, an individual could control his life in a way that would not be possible in the United States.
This theme?the need for individuals and...