our namesake: louis d. brandeis
the university was established seven years after the death of our namesake, judge louis brandeis. In founding Brandeis University, the American Jewish community sought to build an institution that would put into practice the universal values and principles that brandeis justice embodies: open and robust inquiry, reverence for learning and knowledge, and service to others.
Louis Dembitz Brandeis (1856-1941), a leading legal and judicial figure, was instrumental in shaping modern American jurisprudence. His principles and ideas about law, democracy, and society are as relevant and useful today as they were in the first half of the 20th century, a time when individual liberties and the world of work for average citizens often clashed with growing government and corporate power. Brandeis’s legacy offers enduring guidance as society grapples with the many complex issues of inclusion, equity, and government power in the 21st century.
Brandeis was appointed to the United States Supreme Court in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson in a bitterly contested process that sought to brand him a radical reformer and was tinged with anti-Semitism. he was the first Jew to sit on the high court. At the time, the New York Times dismissed Brandeis as “a contender, a fighter for change and reform.”
in fact, long before he joined the supreme court, brandeis left an indelible mark on the law. As a Boston attorney, he became known as the “people’s attorney” for his outstanding pro bono work in the public interest. he supported workers’ rights, advocating for fair wages and working hours.
“if we want to be guided by the light of reason, we must allow our minds to be bold”. — Louis D. brandeis
lawyer louis d. brandeis at his desk, c. 1900
during his career as a lawyer, brandeis made a major contribution to modern jurisprudence, according to philippa strum ’59, brandeis’s preeminent biographer and senior scholar at the woodrow wilson international center for scholars, when he developed a new approach to arguing cases that they used factual evidence, not just legal theory. this method became known as the “brandeis brief” and is a staple of US constitutional law.
In 1890, Brandeis argued, in what became one of the most famous Harvard Law Review articles in history, that the right to privacy was inherent in American law. “…to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions, and their sensations [the framers of the constitution]… conferred, in opposition to the government, the right to be left alone, the broadest of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”
members of the supreme court of the united states, c. 1916. brandeis is in the upper left corner.
Decades later, in 1928, in a famous Supreme Court dissent, Brandeis again defended the “right to be left alone.” according to strum, “the phrase ‘the right to be left alone’ has since been invoked in almost every lawsuit and constitutional decision related to privacy…”
During his tenure on the court, Brandeis stood up for free speech, becoming the first judge to do so. in a 1927 opinion he wrote, “those who won our independence…believed that the freedom to think as one likes and to speak as one thinks are indispensable means for the discovery and dissemination of political truth; that, without freedom of expression and assembly, discussion would be pointless…” justice brandeis believed that a democratic society depended on individual rights such as freedom of expression and the right to be left alone. but democracy also implied responsibilities. “The most important political office is that of a private citizen,” Brandeis wrote early in his career. In addition, Strum says, Brandeis believed that free speech is inextricably linked to every citizen’s duty to participate in the democratic process: to debate the ideas of the day and make his voice known to legislators, and to vote.
brandeis reading on her porch, c. 1935
justice brandeis died in 1941, having lived half his life in the 19th century and the other half in the 20th. however, his guiding principles and ideas about free speech, privacy, government intrusion, and democracy continue to influence and shape modern jurisprudence and society.
- Luis D. brandeis: an inspiring life highlights pieces by louis d. brandeis collection, with photographs, letters and other materials from the brandeis family
- wise American , written by phillipa strum for the winter 2015/2016 issue of brandeis magazine
- celebrating louis ascension to court – 100 years later, written by julian cardillo for brandeisnow
photos courtesy of robert d. farber & special collections