As our nation prepares to consider the nomination of a Supreme Court justice, I spent some time reviewing some of the views of one of the League’s founders, Justice Louis Brandeis. Brandeis, who served on the Supreme Court from 1916-39, was a champion of the average “citizen” and a critic of government corruption.
As one of the civic leaders who attended the first gathering that led to the creation of the National Municipal League, later renamed, Brandeis railed against those who did not participate in democracy, and particularly non-voters. In response to a question at a Boston forum in 1904 about a man named John who would not vote, Brandeis replied “It is men like this John, not the machine politicians, who are responsible for all of the bad government that we get and the only thing we have to do in order to get good government is to make the men and women of Boston feel the dishonor which they bring upon themselves and upon the city by neglecting their obvious duty to vote and vote intelligently.”
At the same time, Brandeis felt it important that the electorate be well-informed, saying “democracy means that the people shall govern, and they can govern only by taking the trouble to inform themselves as to the facts necessary for a correct decision, and then by recording that decision through a public vote.”
Brandeis also was a champion of a more equitable distribution of wealth and often spoke out against the corporate elite, much like one of our other founders, Theodore Roosevelt. At one point, prior to serving as a Supreme Court justice, Brandeis said “we can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we can’t have both.”
Finally, at least for a man of his time, he was a supporter of equality, insofar as it applied to the population he considered equal, which was surely not everyone. Nonetheless, he made the connection between equality and progress, saying that not only is equality important but that it helps nations thrive: “Democracy rests upon two pillars: one, the principle that all men are equally entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and the other, the conviction that such equal opportunity will most advance civilization.”
While Justice Brandeis spoke about the value of equality, he has been criticized more recently for not recognizing the need for racial equality and integration, even at a time during which some of his colleagues did so. Perhaps now, 120 years later, he would accept an amendment to his statements on equality, ensuring that EVERYONE is included.