100 Years Ago, the First Jewish Supreme Court Justice

On this day 100 years ago, January 28 1916, Woodrow Wilson nominated Louis Brandeis as the first Jew to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. The nomination was highly controversial among the American public, both because of Brandeis’ progressive political views as well as his religion.

After a four-month wait for the Senate to confirm his nomination, Brandeis went on to serve on the Supreme Court for 23 years. Professor Peter Dreier blogs in the Huffington Post:

“On the Supreme Court, Brandeis was a key architect of rulings to protect free speech and to strengthen the right to privacy. During several decades of dramatic changes in public policy, Brandeis was typically on the side of progressive reform, but with his own twist. Brandeis viewed states as "laboratories" for innovative public policies. Not surprisingly, at a time when states were enacting a variety of progressive laws protecting workers and consumers, Brandeis advocated judicial constraint, encouraging his Court colleagues to give state legislators the benefit of the doubt. "The most important thing we do is not doing," he said about the Court.”

In addition to making a lasting impact in constitutional law, Brandeis was a vocal supporter of a Jewish homeland:

“Brandeis' other major crusade was American Zionism. He was a secular Jew who celebrated Christmas. But he supported the idea of Jews' having a homeland, based on social justice and Jewish prophetic principles. At the time, many German Jews -- who were more affluent and more assimilated than Jewish immigrants from Eastern European -- were eager to be seen as patriotic Americans and unsympathetic to European Zionism. In 1914 Brandeis was elected chair of the Provisional Committee for General Zionist Affairs and spent much of his time and energy rallying fellow Jews as well as non-Jews in support of a Jewish state.”

After his retirement in 1939, the New York Times praised his career in an editorial:

"The retirement of Justice Brandeis takes from the bench of the Supreme Court one of the great judges of our times," said the Times, declaring that the storm against him "seems almost incredible now" and that in "the respect and affection of the American people he has come to occupy a place like that reserved for Justice Holmes ..." Like Holmes, the Times said, Brandeis "has regarded the Constitution as no iron straitjacket, but a garment that must fit each generation."

We celebrate the legacy that Brandeis’ lifelong work has left for us today, and his nomination signaled a historical turning-point for Jews in American politics.