Supreme Court Justices
Issue Date: September 22, 2009
City: Washington, DC
In the spring of 1787, the Founding Fathers gathered in Philadelphia to write a new constitution. One hundred days later, tears streamed down Benjamin Franklin’s face as he put his name to the 4,400-word document that gave birth to the United States of America.
The U.S. Constitution is the shortest document of its kind and has several areas that are subject to interpretation. Questions of law regarding its meaning fall within the province of the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Their historic decisions on civil liberties, industry, and the balance of interests between individuals and government touch the lives of Americans in countless ways every day.
At the age of 20, Louis Brandeis (1856 – 1941) graduated from Harvard Law School with the highest grade point average in the history of the school. Fourteen years later, in 1890, Brandeis wrote an article that accomplished “nothing less than adding a chapter to our law.” Introducing privacy as a fundamental right of all Americans, Brandeis’ idea evolved over the next 75 years to protect the most personal aspects of people’s lives.
Louis Brandeis was appointed to the Supreme Court by Woodrow Wilson in 1916. He was a liberal reformer who championed individual rights and social justice. In the Whitney v. California case, he formulated principles for protecting free speech when unpopular views are expressed during a time of emergency. This was followed by his historical dissent on Olmstead v. U.S., where Justice Brandeis defined privacy as “the right to be let alone -- the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”
Although it was mentioned nowhere in the Constitution, his privacy argument gained powerful support. After his death, the high court applied Brandeis’ Olmstead dissenting opinion to cases.
Louis Brandeis’ ardent defense of the right to privacy has had a continuing influence on the Supreme Court and American life.