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Brandeis, in brief

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Louis D. Brandeis

A Life

By Melvin I. Urofsky

Pantheon. 953 pp. $40

Louis Brandeis is revered as a Supreme Court justice who, dissenting on his own and with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., greatly increased Americans' sensitivity to individual liberties. Brandeis is also, of course, the namesake of Brandeis University. But as Melvin I. Urofsky reminds us in this strapping biography, even before going on the High Court in 1916, Brandeis had lent his name to something durable: the Brandeis brief.

A brief is lawyers' terminology for a document that sets out the main points favoring one side of a case. Brandeis's innovation was to realize that as the world became more complex, a good lawyer couldn't be content with just citing and interpreting relevant laws and precedents but should also introduce the facts of life -- drawn from economics, sociology, psychology and other disciplines -- that have a bearing on the issues. As Urofsky points out, "the brief filed by the NAACP in the original segregation case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), is very short on legal precedent -- because very little existed -- but replete with materials related to the harm done by segregation to the minds and hearts of black children." Although Brandeis was dead by the time Brown was decided, the Brandeis quotation with which Urofsky closes the book seems particularly apt to the case: "My faith in time is great."

-- Dennis Drabelle drabelled@washpost.com

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