Cohnipedia: Justice Brandeis and St. Louis — a short history

Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Most American Jews are familiar with the life and career of Louis Dembitz Brandeis, the Kentucky-born legal scholar who excelled at Harvard Law School when few Jews were admitted to that university, and who was later nominated by President Woodrow Wilson as the first Jew to serve on the United States Supreme Court, in 1916. The Brandeis nomination was highly contentious in the U.S. Senate with blatantly and openly anti-Semitic objections raised on the Senate floor, one of them infamously stating that a person with an “Oriental (i.e. Jewish) mind could never serve on an Occidental Court.” Despite such outrages, Brandeis was ultimately confirmed and he compiled one of the most distinguished records as a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Brandeis was to pave the way for future Jewish justices, including Benjamin Cardozo, Felix Frankfurter, Abe Fortas, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Arthur Goldberg, Stephen Breyer and Elana Kagan. The idea of a Jew serving on the nation’s High Court has become such a non-issue that the current bench is made up of three Jews and six Catholics. But few St. Louisans outside of history buffs have been aware of the fact that Louis D. Brandeis began his practice of law right here in St. Louis in 1878. Local attorney Burton Bernard, an expert on the career of Brandeis, played a major role in the replacement of a plaque marking the site at 505 Chestnut Street where Brandeis began the practice of law. The original plaque was installed on the site in 1936 by the Bar Association of St. Louis with the inscription:

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“On this site, LOUIS DEMBITZ BRANDEIS, Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States began the practice of law in 1878. From this spot spread the influence of a great lawyer, a social philosopher and a wise and just judge.”

The original plaque, unveiled June 5, 1936 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Brandeis’ induction to the Supreme Court, was placed on the sidewalk because the owner of the building did not like Brandeis.

In the mid-1960s, the plaque was rededicated and placed on the wall of a building at 505 Chestnut. However, in 1987 a contractor inadvertently destroyed the plaque while doing some renovation to the building, according to an article in the St. Louis Jewish Light by Burton Boxerman.

A replica of the original plaque was produced and presented to the local Bar Association the same year the original was destroyed. Fast forward to April 7, 1989, when the restored plaque, which was affixed to the front of the building that housed the downtown branch of Amighetti’s Bakery and Cafe at 101 N. Broadway. Attending the rededication ceremony were Burton Bernard, Prof. David B. Davis, president of the Organization of American Historians;

MxPherson D. Moore, president of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis and Irving Dilliard, former editorial of the Editorial Page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, an admirer of Brandeis who was instrumental in getting the original plaque installed.

In addition to the commemorative plaque at the approximate site of his first law office, Brandeis is also honored with a bronze portrait bust in the Old Courthouse in St. Louis. The bust was unveiled on June 28, 1966 in commemoration of the appointment of Brandeis as Associate Supreme Court Justice of the United States. The inscription reads: “Louis D. Brandeis, Associate Justice, 1916-1941.”

While the St. Louis origin of the professional legal career of Louis D. Brandeis was significant enough to merit mention in Melvin I. Urofsky’s acclaimed biography “Louis D. Brandeis: A Life” (Pantheon, 2009), it took up only seven months in his long and brilliant career. According to Urofsky, while Brandeis’ parents had hoped he would set up law practice in his native Louisville, Ky., the young man wanted to be independent. So he accepted a position as an attorney in the St. Louis office of James Taussig at a salary of $50 per month. He arrived in St. Louis in November 1878 and started his practice in the office at 505 Chestnut Street, while he resided at the spacious home of the Charles Nagel family at 2044 Lafayette Street.

“Louis Brandeis appeared at the circuit courthouse before Judge James J. Lindsey and was formally admitted to practice law at the local bar,” writes Urofsky. He adds that while Brandeis made many friends and enjoyed a social life of many dances and outings in St. Louis, he was frustrated by the dearth of interesting, challenging or lucrative legal work in the city. He later accepted a clerkship in Boston for Chief Justice Horace Gray of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

Following the clerkship, Brandeis went on to a highly successful private practice, which led to his national recognition and growing influence in both the Democratic Party and American Zionism. His national reputation as a brilliant lawyer led to Wilson’s nomination of Brandeis to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Urofsky says that Brandeis wrote a letter to his mother Frederika explaining why he had gone to St. Louis in the first place instead of coming home to Louisville “and enjoying you and all your love.” But he could also answer her question: “There is also ambition to be satisfied. Man is a strange animal. He does not enjoy what he has-and he always wants what he does not have…and ambition was something for which one is always ready to offer a sacrifice.” Thus ended the brief but significant sojourn of Louis Dembitz Brandeis in the City of St. Louis. But that was not the only Brandeis-St. Louis connection: in 1946 a group of Jewish civic, business and educational leaders founded Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. on the site of a former medical school, a secular school dedicated to the intellectual rigors of the first American Supreme Court Justice after whom it was named. And the name of the first President and Chancellor of Brandeis University was none other than Abram Leon Sachar, an acclaimed historian and scholar who was a native of-you guessed it-St. Louis, Mo.

And the rest is history…