Benjamin Cardozo, Jewish Justice

Justice Cardozo's background as a Sephardic Jew shaped his entire career.


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In 1932, President Herbert Hoover appointed Benjamin Nathan Cardozo to the Supreme Court of the United States. Cardozo was the second Jew, after Louis D. Brandeis, to serve on the nation’s highest court. Previously, Cardozo served as a judge on the New York State Supreme Court and as Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals.

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 eighteenth century forebear served as the first Jewish incorporator and trustee of Columbia University; another helped found of the New York Stock Exchange in 1792; and the poet Emma Lazarus was his cousin.

Born in 1870, Benjamin Cardozo was the son of Judge Albert Cardozo and Rebecca Nathan. Albert Cardozo served as Vice President and trustee of Congregation Shearith Israel and Benjamin celebrated his bar mitzvah there. The family lived a well-mannered, upper-class life, the kind that might have been depicted in an Edith Wharton novel. However, the Cardozo family image suffered a major setback when Albert, a Tammany Hall appointee to the bench, resigned his judgeship in 1872 just as a legislative committee was about to impeach him for nepotism.

Despite this taint of notoriety, Benjamin chose to enter the law, his father’s profession, and he proudly–one might say defiantly–entered his father’s law firm upon graduation from Columbia University Law School. The young Cardozo distinguished himself as a commercial law litigator, and soon other attorneys brought their most difficult cases to him for assistance. Shy and reserved in his personal life, in the courtroom Cardozo was a powerful orator. Above all, perhaps driven to redeem his father’s disgrace, Cardozo developed a reputation of the utmost integrity.
Justice Benjamin Cardozo

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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