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Benjamin Nathan Cardozo was a member of a distinguished Sephardic Jewish family,The Cardozo family is one of America’s oldest and most distinguished. Cardozo forebears were numbered among the founders of Congregation Shearith Israel, the oldest congregation in North America and the central, social institution of New York’s Sephardic community. One 18th-century forebear served as the first Jewish incorporator and trustee of Columbia University another helped found the New York Stock Exchange in 1792; and poet Emma Lazarus was his cousin.

Benjamin Nathan Cardozo and his twin sister, Emily Natalie, were born in New York City on May 24, 1870. Despite a glorious heritage, his childhood was not an easy one, beginning with feeble health in his first days of life. Weeks later, his mother’s brother, Benjamin Nathan (for whom he was named), vice president of the New York Stock Exchange and president of Congregation Shearith Israel (the family’s house of worship), was brutally murdered when returning home from services. Controversy swirled for months, but the murderer was never found.

Cardozo’s father for a time served as vice president of of Congregation Shearith Israel-the nation’s oldest synagogue; several family members were presidents and ministers of the Congregation, including his great-granduncle, who in August 1776 fled New York City with the Holy Scrolls to escape invading British forces. In the family, no detail of religious observance was neglected. When Cardozo’s father was required to be at the courthouse on Saturdays, he first consulted the Beth Din (the rabbinic court of law) in London, learned that necessary public business took precedence, and after services walked to the courthouse.

When Cardozo was two years old, his father, at the pinnacle of his career as a Justice of the New York State Supreme Court, was compelled to resign the bench in disgrace amid charges of corruption during the William “Boss” Tweed era. And though he managed as a lawyer to maintain his family in comfort, theirs always was a solitary, reclusive life.

Cardozo’s mother, long chronically ill, died when he was nine years old, leaving his upbringing largely to his sister Ellen (Nell), eleven years his senior, with whom he made his home-neither of them married. Only one of his siblings (his twin, Emily) married (she married a Christian, and was declared dead by the family). In 1885, the year Cardozo entered Columbia College, at age 15, both his sister Grace and his father died.

He was admitted to Columbia University at the age of fifteen, was graduated in 1889, and earned a graduate degree in 1890. Cardozo studied law at Columbia University and was admitted to the bar in 1891 before obtaining a degree.

At the tender age of 21, Benjamin Nathan Cardozo embarked on the career to which he singly dedicated his life: the law. For 23 years as a New York City practitioner, he enjoyed acclaim as a “lawyer’s lawyer,” a walking encyclopedia of law. His knowledge was astounding, his memory photographic. He could prepare a brief, including references to all pertinent cases and materials, simply from memory.

He began practicing appellate law with his older brother, and remained in private practice for twenty-three years. Benjamin Cardozo became an expert in commercial law before being appointed to the New York Court of Appeals, where he had a lauded, two-decade tenure.

Cardozo enjoyed an unblemished personal reputation, although his father, Albert Jacob Cardozo, a New York Supreme Court justice with Tammany Hall connections, had resigned in 1872 under threat of impeachment.

In 1914, Cardozo was elected to the New York Supreme Court, the state’s trial bench. Later that year, the Governor of New York appointed him to a temporary position on the New York Court of Appeals. Cardozo was elected to a full term as an Associate Judge of the Court of Appeals in 1917, and in 1926 he became Chief Judge. His writings were used as a handbook for lawyers and his lectures at Yale Law school were expanded and published. Cardozo was a star of the first order on the nation’s leading common law court. He wrote and lectured on jurisprudence in addition to his distinguished service as a jurist. Cardozo was elected chief judge of his court and served with distinction.

After the resignation of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1932, President Herbert Hoover appointed Cardozo to the United States Supreme Court.

In the New Deal period under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cardozo usually sided with the liberally inclined justices Louis D. Brandeis and Harlan Fiske Stone. He wrote a majority opinion for Helvering v. Davis, 301 U.S. 619, and other Social Securitycases (1937), upholding the federal Social Security program on the basis of the general welfare provision of the United States Constitution (Article I, section 8). InPalko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319 (1937), a criminal case involving a claim of double jeopardy, he held that the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) to the Constitution imposed on the states only those provisions of the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments) that were “of the very essence of a scheme of ordered liberty.” Although it offered a minimum of guidance and may have encouraged much more constitutional litigation than would a specific standard, this test was retained by the court through the 1960s. In 1969, however, the Supreme Court reversed the Palko ruling, holding in Benton v. Maryland that the rule against double jeopardy was so fundamental to justice as to be a requirement of due process of law. Cardozo served on the Supreme Court for six years. He died on July 9, 1938, at the age of sixty-eight. 

Throughout his public career, Cardozo tried never to let his personal identification influence his judicial reasoning. For example, although an avowed personal opponent of Hitler’s regime, he was distressed when, in 1935, New York City magistrate Louis Brodsky dismissed assault the charges against five of six Jewish defendants who stormed the German ship “Bremen” in New York harbor as it flew the Nazi flag. Brodsky wrote in his opinion that the lawbreakers were justified because the flag provoked them, even though the U.S. government recognized Germany’s National Socialist regime.

Professor Roscoe Pound of Harvard considered Cardozo one of the ten best legal minds in American history, and his writings and opinions contributed greatly to the evolution of American common law. As a jurist and committed Jew, Justice Cardozo brought honor to the United States and to his people.

“Benjamin Nathan Cardozo lived for the law, and the law made him famous. He earned his fame both by his influential judicial opinions and by his lectures and books, which explained the work of judges and defended a creative lawmaking role for them. He enhanced his fame with a memorable literary style and a personal kindness, courtesy, and gentleness that led many to describe him in later life as a saint. Cardozo was no saint, though, for his life included the toughness of his many years as an ambitious lawyer, and his character contained such human failings as vanity and prejudice; however, he was a good man with extraordinary talents. He became one of the most distinguished judges in the history of American law.”

“Cardozo authored about 700 decisions, with roughly 500 as a state court judge and 200 as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  His opinions evidence a man who was learned in the classics and who was a master of rhetoric and pithy aphorisms. 

Cardozo wrote several books, but none perhaps was as popular as The Nature of the Judicial Process. In it he expounded on judicial influences on decision-making. He dispelled the view that the common law was a grouping of static rules embedded in concrete; it was instead an organic process of change equipped to meet societal needs. Perhaps in large part, due to this work, Cardozo is widely acclaimed as the father of the judicial school of pragmatism. The essence of legal pragmatism is that the law is an instrument of social change and that the judge should be concerned with its consequential impact when interpreting it. He certainly endorsed these principles. He also authored The Growth of the Law, The Paradoxes of Legal Science andLaw and Literature, all in which he demonstrated his mastery of the classics, English law, and incisive and penetrating thought and brilliance.

…Cardozo was not deeply absorbed in Jewish causes.  He certainly identified as a Jew.  He was aware of anti-semitism in the world around him, although his personal experiences with it were slim. In fact, he was admitted into the Century Club in Washington, an elite club that clearly discriminated against Jews.  Although Felix Frankfurter thought it compromising on the part of Cardozo to align himself with such a club, Cardozo was not in the least deterred. Cardozo did sit on the Supreme Court with one of the worst bigots ever to hold a seat on that court. James Clark McReynolds was openly anti-semitic, and resented Cardozo’s and Brandeis’s appointments to the court. Upon  Cardozo’s nomination, McReynolds remarked “that to become a justice one only had to be a Jew and have a father who was a crook.” When Cardozo read his opinions in open court, as was customary, McReynolds ordinarily covered his face with a brief or some other paper, as he did at Cardozo’s swearing-in ceremony. Although concurring in some of Cardozo’s opinions, he never wrote “I concur” in any signed by Cardozo.  Nor did McReynolds attend any of the three memorial sessions the Court held for Cardozo after his death. Cardozo was certainly not callous to others who were the target of anti-semitism.”

“Later experts have said Cardozo took a moralistic approach to his pioneering work on legal doctrines while misrepresenting facts in particular cases, with the idea of serving the larger good. A deeply private man known for his gentle, affable demeanor and loved by his colleagues, he never married. He had also taken care of his older sister Ellen Ida, who had fallen ill for some time and died in 1929.

Cardozo’s chief contribution came from his felicity of expression and skill at synthesis. His relatively short tenure of less than six years on the Court minimized his influence, Nevertheless, his opinions have been grist for judges well beyond his years of service, placing Cardozo in the pantheon of eminent justices.

In addition to his work as judge, Cardozo was a co-founder of the American Law Institute in 1923 and served on the board of the American Jewish Committee. He received honorary degrees from an array of institutions.”

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