Louis Dembitz Brandeis was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on November 13, 1856, the youngest of four children to the first-generation immigrants from Prague, Adolph and Frederika [Dembitz] Brandeis. Adolph, one of the many Europeans who came to the United States in the wake of the abortive 1848 Revolutions, eventually prospered in local business. Brandeis's childhood, with sisters Fanny (b. 1850), Amy (b.1852) and brother Alfred (b. 1854), was spent in relative comfort. Young Brandeis excelled in school, earning a gold medal from the Louisville public school system for excellence in his studies.
In 1872 and in part due to economic misfortunes associated with Reconstruction and the coming depression, Adolph sold off the Brandeis business holdings and the family left Louisville for an extended stay in Europe. While abroad, Brandeis failed at his first go of a European education, falling short of the admission standards of the Vienna Gymnasium. For some months thereafter, Brandeis traveled widely with his father and brother, living for a time in Switzerland. Attending the Annen-Realschule in Dresden, Germany, during the years 1873 to 1875, he performed well enough to garner commendations from the faculty.
Upon the family's return to America in 1875, Brandeis opted for a career in law, influenced in part by his uncle Lewis Dembitz, a noted Louisville attorney (who served as such a positive role model that Brandeis would later change his middle name from David to Dembitz). He applied to and was accepted by Harvard Law School, where he enrolled at the age of 19, without any prior formal higher education. Brandeis did exceptionally well in the law program, maintaining an average of 97 in his courses over a two-year period. Despite Harvard's rule that one must be twenty-one years of age to obtain a legal degree, Brandeis graduated in 1877 as class valedictorian.
After practicing law briefly in St. Louis with his brother-in-law James Taussig, Brandeis returned to Boston and established the firm Brandeis-Warren in 1879 with a fellow student from Harvard, Samuel D. Warren. Theirs was a very successful partnership; the firm soon had attracted both a solid reputation and a significant client base. For a few years, Brandeis also taught a course on evidence at the Harvard Law School and a course on business law at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Brandeis would maintain strong ties with Harvard throughout the rest of his career, notably through his help in initiating and continuing both the Harvard Law School Association (1886) and the "Harvard Law Review" (1889). The latter gave Brandeis the forum to present what would prove to be one of his greatest contributions to legal history, the pathbreaking article "The Right to Privacy," published in December 1890. After the departure of Samuel Warren from the firm, Brandeis remained the senior partner of Brandeis, Dunbar & Nutter until he left for Washington in 1916.
While in the early years of his career in Boston, Brandeis developed both the interest and talent for public advocacy that would color the remainder of his life. The "people's attorney" began to devote more and more of his professional time to supporting the cause of the socially and economically disadvantaged. In defense of groups like those small businessmen hindered by unfair Massachusetts liquor laws, the paupers on Boston's Long Island, and the New England Free Trade League, Brandeis began to articulate the beliefs that would guide him in later life: the preservation of the individual's right to fair treatment in work and law, and to be "left alone" by both the forces of government and big business. He also began his practice of not accepting payment for his legal services in defense of these causes.
On a visit to Louisville in 1890, Brandeis met Alice Goldmark (a distant cousin), and began a brief courtship. They were married on March 23, 1891 and took residence in Boston. The pair had two daughters, Susan (b. February 27, 1893) and Elizabeth (b. April 25, 1896). Until his departure for Washington, the family also maintained a home in the town of Dedham. The Brandeis family also kept a vacation cottage in the Cape Cod community of Chatham.
The first decade of the twentieth century found a well-established Brandeis continuing in his efforts to promote the common good, a practice he undertook at his own expense, billing himself to compensate his firm for time spent. One of his first major stands concerned the preservation of municipal subway systems against the threat of corporate monopoly. With Edward Filene, Brandeis also formed the Public Franchise League in 1900, a body instrumental in reaching a compromise in the fight over the consolidation of Boston area gas and electricity companies. Yet another chapter in Brandeis's professional growth involved his formulation and advocacy for a new form of life insurance, more suited to the material situation of the average worker. Arguing that the Massachusetts system then administered through insurance companies was grossly inefficient, Brandeis proposed that savings banks might offer similar services, without unnecessarily gouging the working person. He would later recall this successful campaign as his greatest achievement. Within this milieu, Brandeis formulated his identity as a Progressive. As a means to articulate his ideas, Brandeis reworked the concept of the legal brief, incorporating information relevant to the social and economic repercussions of the legal issues in question in addition to the details of the law itself. In the process he radically altered the fashion in which lawyers practice their trade. The style of the "Brandeis Brief" first appeared in 1908 in the case Muller v. Oregon, related to regulating the number of hours per day that women could be made to work.
Brandeis stepped onto the national stage with his involvement in the New Haven Railroad merger controversy. J.P. Morgan sought to consolidate New England rail lines through a merger of his companies with the Boston & Maine Railroad. To Brandeis, this smelled of a monopoly that would ultimately threaten the consumer. From 1905 to 1914 he waged a legal fight to oppose Morgan's efforts in the region. With support from major magazines and newspapers, like "LaFollette's Weekly" and the "Boston American," Brandeis's victory came when the Interstate Commerce Commission ruled the New Haven's acquisition of the B & M illegal.
In the years before World War One, Brandeis continued to involve himself in the legal life of American transportation and labor, putting a finer point on his public stand against "the curse of bigness" in favor of social and economic justice. For example, incensed at the tendency of large rail companies to increase shipping rates without adequate explanation, Brandeis urged for a new business policy. Taking a cue from the work of Frederick Taylor and others in the field of industrial efficiency, he coined the term "scientific management" to describe a new approach which mandated that managers precisely determine the resources and time necessary to complete any given business function. The goal in this was the prevention of unnecessary cost trickling down to the consumer.
His involvement in affairs such as these helped make Brandeis a household name. Additionally, his active participation in national questions lent him familiarity and respect in Washington circles. After his support of Woodrow Wilson's presidential campaign in 1912, Brandeis was selected as the Secretary of Commerce in the new Cabinet. This news leaked to the press, however, and after an intense flurry of opposition to this appointment, Wilson opted for a less politically volatile candidate. Despite this public setback, Brandeis continued to serve the Wilson presidency in the role of unofficial advisor, most notably as the designer of Wilson's "New Freedom" legislative reforms.
Brandeis's nomination to the United States Supreme Court in 1916 marked perhaps the most tumultuous point of his career. As before, some elements of American society opposed to his Progressive ideals were outraged at the thought of his gaining more influence. The confirmation hearings were thus, up until that time, the most highly debated in American history. He was approved and appointed on June 1, at the age of 59. With fellow Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Brandeis remained a strong Liberal voice on the court for the remainder of his tenure, playing a major role in the creation of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, and consistently supporting the causes of free speech, the right to privacy, and the reform of labor laws.
At first, Brandeis had little interest in organized religion. Though raised to be a spiritual person, he did not grow up immersed in the Jewish tradition. He therefore remained distant from his Jewish background for much of his adult life. His early life in Boston did little to change this perspective. As he came to occupy more of the public eye, however, Brandeis was subject to personal attacks, many focusing upon his religious identity. Over time, Brandeis's involvement with groups such as the Jewish workers involved in the New York Garment Strike of 1910 also increased his awareness of the needs of the Jewish community. Through this heightened concern for American Jewry, and through contacts with people such as Jacob de Haas, Brandeis took an interest in Zionism and soon became an ardent supporter, and then an internationally recognized leader of the movement. Elected Chair of the Provisional Committee for General Zionist Affairs in 1914, Brandeis revitalized the American movement with new leadership strategies, public appearances and popular publications like "The Jewish Problem: How to Solve It." Despite the limits placed upon his actions by his official status as a Supreme Court Justice, after 1916 he continued to act privately to support the Zionist cause. With the end of the First World War, Brandeis realized the time was ripe for movement. He sent several delegates to the Paris Peace Conferences, including de Haas and Felix Frankfurter, to help urge the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Brandeis himself traveled to Paris and then to the Middle East during the summer of 1919. Despite disputes with the newly formed World Zionist Organization, Brandeis remained a presence in the movement for the rest of his life.
After twenty-three years of service on the Court and seeing his own daughter, Susan, argue cases before it, Brandeis elected to resign in 1939 at the age of 82. Spending much of his remaining years at the vacation home in Chatham, he continued to correspond with and advise many influential people of the time. He succumbed to a heart attack and died in Washington, D.C., on October 5, 1941. His wife, Alice, followed four years later, on Oct 12.