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For the 9th Day of Hanukkah, 8 Jewish Supreme Court Justices

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on December 14, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The latkes are getting soggy, Hanukkah Harry has gone away, and one of Judaism's more "meh" holidays is over. But forget that, let's talk about the Supreme Court. In what's got to be a great Maccabean coincidence, there have now been eight Jewish Supreme Court justices, one for each light on the menorah.

Less than a hundred years ago, the first Jewish justice was appointed to the Supreme Court. That gave rise to a single "Jewish seat" on the Court. Like the "Catholic seat," there was typically a spot on the court set aside for a single Jewish jurist -- and no more. Today, a third of the justices are Jewish. Here's a quick overview of all the Supreme Court Justices descending from the tribes of Israel.

1. Louis Brandeis (1916 - 1939)

Justice Brandeis wasn't just the Court's first Jewish justice, he was one of the most important Supreme Court justices of the past century. As a lawyer fighting to end Lochner-era restrictions on labor protections, Brandeis gave birth to what's now known as a "Brandeis brief" -- a massive Supreme Court brief heavy on the pragmatic implications of the law, with little time spent dwelling on legal precedent. (The most famous was 113 pages long, with only three pages discussing the law.) As a Harvard Law student he helped develop the idea of a constitutional right to privacy, in politics he was active in fighting antisemitism, and on the bench he gave us the Erie Doctrine.

2. Benjamin Cardozo (1932 - 1938)

Benjamin Cardozo made it to the Supreme Court without ever having earned a law degree. When he entered Columbia Law School, the J.D. program was only two years long. When it was extended to three, he decided to end his studies instead of graduating. He made his mark on the Supreme Court with decisions supporting unemployment compensation, Social Security, and substantive due process.

Cardozo was the second Jewish justice, but he may have been the first Hispanic justice as well, with his Sephardic ancestors descending from Spain and Portugal.

3. Felix Frankfurter (1939 - 1962)

Besides being a Supreme Court justice, Frankfurter is notable as one of the founders of the ACLU and a personal friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt. At Harvard Law, he worked to defeat a plan that would limit the amount of Jewish students admitted to the university. After law school graduation, he worked to defend civil liberties and, later, to advance the New Deal. His activism didn't spread to the Supreme Court, however. While on that bench, Frankfurter became known as one of the Court's staunchest advocates of judicial restraint.

4. Arthur Goldberg (1962 - 1965)

Goldberg could have been just a blip in Supreme Court history. He was on the bench for a scant three years. But in that time he authored many influential decisions. In Griswold v. Connecticut, for example, he helped establish a Constitutional right to privacy and, in his concurrence, argued that such a right was found in the Ninth Amendment.

5. Abe Fortas (1965 - 1969)

Goldberg resigned so quickly after joining the Court largely so that Fortas could have a seat on it. On the Court, Fortas made his greatest impact defending the due process rights of children and juveniles. He was also known for defending the rights of attorneys arguing before the Court; Fortas was highly critical of Justices who interrupted lawyers speaking before the Court.

When Chief Justice Earl Warren retired from the Court, Fortas was nominated as his successor. Conservative Congress members filibustered his nomination due to his close relationship with President Lyndon Johnson. It was the first time a Supreme Court justice ever testified before the Senate and the hullabaloo caused Fortas to resign, rather than take the reins of the Court.

6. Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993 - forever)

After Fortas, the "Jewish seat" disappeared until the appointment of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The Notorious RBG had made a name for herself defending women's rights through the courts. As a justice, she is one of the stronger liberal voices on the Court and has earned a large pop culture following. Justice Ginsburg has become so popular among legal-minded Millennials that a whole Ginsburg-industrial complex has developed around RBG books, pillows, and nail designs.

At 82, she's the second oldest Justice on the bench and is known for the occasional tipsy nap during State of the Union addresses. But she's not planning on retiring anytime soon.

7. Steven Breyer (1994 - )

Before joining the Supreme Court, Justice Breyer clerked for Justice Arthur Goldberg, taught at Harvard Law School, and helped prosecute Watergate. On the bench, Justice Breyer advocates an interpretation of the Constitution which gives effect to its democratic intentions, an idea he developed in 2005's Active Liberty. That book is just one of several that Breyer, a fairly prolific writer, has published while on the Supreme Court. The most recent, The Court and the World, argues that the Supreme Court should engage more frequently with foreign judicial systems and practices.

8. Elena Kagan (2010 - )

Justice Kagan was born to be a judge. As a young girl, she argued her way into getting a bat mitzvah at her synagogue, overcoming the initial objections of her rabbi. In high school, she took her yearbook photo in a judge's robe and holding a gavel. Her yearbook quote was from Justice Frankfurter.

It took her awhile to make it to the bench, however. Justice Kagan was first nominated to the D.C. Circuit in 1999, but her nomination was withdrawn once George W. Bush became president. She went on to become the first female dean of Harvard Law, then the first female Solicitor General. Justice Kagan fulfilled her dream of becoming a judge in 2010, when she was appointed to the Supreme Court.

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