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Urofsky sheds light on university namesake at Meet the Author talk

Published: October 2, 2009
Section: News

<i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Melvin I. Urofsky discussed his new biography of Louis D. Brandeis this Monday as a part of the Meet the Author series sponsored by the Office of Communications and the Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice.

Urofsky, Professor of Law and Public Policy and Professor Emeritus of History at Virginia Commonwealth University, is famously well versed in the life and times of Justice Brandeis.

He has studied the man and his life since his graduate school days. According to Professor Stephen Whitfield (AMST), who introduced Urofsky at the event, upon the death of Brandeis’ wife it was said that, “No one knows as much about her husband as Mel Urofsky.”

Urofsky described Brandeis as “a man opposed to bigness” who made it his priority to fight giants of the time like JP Morgan while also developing the modern-day specialized law firm.

At the same time, Brandeis the reformer began what is now the widely known practice of pro bono work, where law firms take on the cases of those who are unable to pay.

Brandeis was a, “pragmatic idealist.

A man who always had his eye on the ideal but knew how to get there,” Urofsky said.

During the question and answer session, Urofsky expanded on some of the themes in Brandeis’ life, explaining that Brandeis set out to “educate the bench and the bar” referring to Brandeis’ years spent as a lawyer before joining the United States Supreme Court in 1916.

Urofsky also discussed Brandeis’ role as an active Zionist, chairing the Provisional Executive Committee for Zionist Affairs at the outbreak of World War I.

Brandeis had also made his opinion on women’s rights known in 1908 when he presented the now famous “Brandeis Brief” stating the biological differences between men and women that made it necessary for women to have a shortened workday—something that may seem troubling to students today.

“It is ahistorical to apply what we know now…to what people thought then,” explained Urofsky referencing “the Brandeis Brief”, noting that Brandeis was working with the ideas of the time.

Brandeis had a tendency to treat his work on the Supreme Court in the same way he would treat his work as a lawyer, keeping things grounded in facts, rather than taking part in the more theoretical writing that tends to come with Supreme Court decisions. Urofsky described Brandeis as one who loved reading government documents, and enjoyed keeping things cut and dry.

“It made him an effective lawyer and Justice,” he said.

The tendency towards fact came out in other parts of Brandeis’ life, noted Urofsky.

The Supreme Court building that we are familiar with today was built in the middle of Brandeis’ career on the bench, but Brandeis refused to make use of the office space reserved for him there because he felt it was inappropriately lavish.

Urofsky said that his biography presents Brandeis as a man who had four lives: As a lawyer, a reformer, a Zionist, and as “Mr. Justice Brandeis.”

Urofksy said that he enjoyed the writing process, which took about a year.

He did get frustrated though; While Brandeis was known for writing everything down, insight into his more personal emotions is hard to find, and was not helped by the fact that Brandeis burned many of his personal letters.

The habit was picked up by one of Brandeis’s daughters, who also burned some of her personal documents that could have been of help in writing the biography.

The Brandeis’ were a family that “took the right to privacy very seriously,” joked Urofsky, “I wanted to wring their necks more than one time.”

Urofsky said that the book, while hefty at 950 pages, is actually 20 percent shorter than the original manuscript.

He said that he “wrote fat,” knowing that the editing process would involve cuts.

However, Urofsky said that he wrote the other 20 percent telling himself, “This is going to be my retirement project, then I’ll worry about the publication.”

The talk was held in the Faculty Club, with books available for sale for Urofsky to sign.