Upon publication of his 953- page biography of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 2009, Melvin Urofsky’s wife expressed her relief at the completion of the decades-long project, asking “can Justice Brandeis leave the house now?”
The hugely influential jurist may have departed the Urofsky home, but he dropped by the Columbus School of Law for an hour or so on Sept. 12 as the subject of a lecture by Urofsky given before professors assembled for the monthly faculty luncheon.
Urofsky, a Columbia University educated historian, published “Louis D. Brandeis: A Life” to critical acclaim, with fellow scholars anointing the volume the new gold standard among biographies of the seminal legal thinker and writer.
Invited to speak at the invitation of Professor David Lipton, Urofsky spent his time at CUA Law tracing the remarkable history of Louis Brandeis (1856- 1941) the first Jewish justice to sit on the nation’s highest court after his 1916 appointment by President Woodrow Wilson.
Brandeis had at least four distinct phases to his long career, and succeeded in spectacular fashion at all of them, said Urofsky.
Brandeis was among the youngest-ever graduates of Harvard Law School, and in an age (the 1890s) when a successful private practice attorney might expect to earn $5,000 per year, he was earning ten times that amount, or the equivalent of a million dollars today.
Having become wealthy, he turned his attention to the second phase of his career, that of reformer. Brandeis, explained Urofsky, practically invented pro bono legal representation, setting standards for it that are still observed today and taking on difficult cases at no fee for causes he deemed just.
Later on, Brandeis became deeply involved in the American Zionist movement, although he was not very religiously observant.
During the final and best known phase of his career, his 23 years on the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Brandeis introduced a notion – novel for its time - that the Fourth Amendment should be construed to protect an individual’s privacy, an interpretation that has carried the day since.
Urofsky’s admiration for his subject was evident throughout talk at the faculty luncheon, but he admitted that Louis Brandeis was a remote figure on a personal level.
“He was a cold fish in many ways,” said Urofsky. “He spent years cultivating a cool demeanor.”
In addition to his biography of Brandeis, Urofsky has written or edited more than fifty other books.