Written by Elizabeth R. Purdy, last updated on January 1, 2009
Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo (Photo by Harris & Ewing, public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Benjamin Nathan Cardozo (1870–1938), appointed to the Supreme Court in 1932, became one of the most respected jurists to sit on the bench. Benjamin Cardozo is remembered as much for his dissents as for his majority opinions, which often dealt with the application of the due-process clauses of the Fifth and 14th Amendments. He was known as an incrementalist justice who usually supported government positions. He based his judicial decisions according to how they meshed with his views of justice, morality, and social welfare.
Cardozo and his twin sister, Emily, were born into an affluent family in New York City. His early education took place at home, where Horatio Alger, known for his rags-to-riches children’s stories, tutored him. Cardozo entered Columbia College (now Columbia University) at 15 and graduated in 1889 with top honors. After two years of study at Columbia Law School, Cardozo opted to leave and practice law, joining his father’s old firm and passing the bar in 1891.
In 1913 Cardozo was elected to the New York Supreme Court and in 1914 appointed to the state court of appeals. He was appointed chief judge of the appeals court in 1926 and began developing a national reputation as a writer of elegant, persuasive opinions, a pioneer of tort law, and a legal philosopher. Cardozo’s first book, The Nature of the Judicial Process (1920), is a compilation of lectures delivered at Yale University. He subsequently published The Growth of the Law (1924) and The Paradoxes of Legal Science (1928).
Cardozo was a progressive liberal, generally supportive of New Deal legislation
President Herbert Hoover appointed Cardozo to replace the retiring Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in 1932, two years after the retirement of Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who had earlier opposed a seat on the bench for Cardozo, whom he considered to be too liberal. Cardozo’s nomination received broad approval, and his confirmation made him the second Jew appointed to the Court, Louis D. Brandeis being the first.
Identifying himself as a progressive liberal, Cardozo eschewed partisan politics. He was generally supportive of the constitutionality of most of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, which was initially resisted by a majority of the justices. The Court’s actions led to Roosevelt’s “Court-packing” effort to increase the number of justices in order to save the New Deal. In the infamous “switch in time that saved nine” — when Justice Owen J. Roberts, who had previously voted against most New Deal programs, began to vote with more liberal members — the Court reversed its position on Roosevelt’s policies.
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