Cardozo, Benjamin Nathan


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Cardozo, Benjamin Nathan

Benjamin Nathan Cardozo was a New York state court judge, an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, and an influential legal scholar.

Cardozo was born May 24, 1870, in New York City, the youngest son in a family of six children. His parents were descendants of Portuguese and Spanish Jews who had settled in New York before the Revolutionary War. His father, albert cardozo, was a trial court judge who was forced to resign his seat because of allegations, which were never proved, of improper conduct involving the then corrupt New York City government. Cardozo was tutored during his early life by well known clergyman and teacher Horatio Alger and entered Columbia College at the age of fifteen. He earned a bachelor's degree in 1889 and a master's degree in 1890, then enrolled at Columbia Law School. He was granted admission to the New York state bar in 1891 without having received his law degree.

After completing his legal training and passing the bar examination, Cardozo began practicing appellate law with his brother. He soon became a prominent practitioner in his own right in the fields of corporate and Commercial Law. He often acted as consultant to other law firms, writing appeal briefs for other lawyers and appearing frequently before the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. His extensive appellate experience led him to write his first book, Jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals of the State of New York, published in 1903. In addition, judges often appointed him to act as referee in complicated matters of commercial law, one of his areas of specialty.

In 1913, after twenty-three years in private practice, Cardozo was nominated and elected as a judge on the New York Supreme Court, the state's trial-level bench. Only six weeks later, he was designated to serve temporarily as an associate judge on the Court of Appeals. He remained a temporary judge of the Court of Appeals until 1917, when he was appointed to fill a vacant and permanent seat, and in 1926 he was elected chief judge.

"The great tides and currents which engulf the rest of men do not turn aside in their course and pass the judges by."
—Benjamin Cardozo

During his tenure on the Court of Appeals, Cardozo made his mark as an influential and celebrated jurist and moved the New York court to the forefront of the nation's state courts. With respect to Tort Law, the court under Cardozo greatly expanded the protection offered to individuals injured by the Negligence of others. In Macpherson v. Buick Motor Co., 217 N.Y. 382, 111 N.E. 1050 (1916), perhaps Cardozo's most influential tort opinion, the court held Buick liable for the negligent construction of a defective wheel that injured a purchaser who had bought the car not from Buick but from an automobile dealer. Cardozo's decision to look beyond the contractual relationship between the buyer and seller to the manufacturer for redress helped lay the groundwork for the development of Product Liability, now a common feature of the law, which allows for recovery for injuries even if the consumer had no contractual relationship with the manufacturer. But Cardozo was also willing to impose some commonsense limits on tort liability. In the classic decision palsgraf v. long island railroad, 248 N.Y. 339, 162 N.E. 99 (1928), he authored the majority opinion establishing that a person can be held negligent only for a harm or injury that is foreseeable and not for every injury that follows from the negligence. As Cardozo put it, "[T]he orbit of the danger as disclosed to the eye of reasonable vigilance would be the orbit of duty."

Cardozo's influence was also strongly felt in the law of contracts. He wrote the majority opinion in Wood v. Duff-Gordon, 222 N.Y. 88, 118 N.E. 214 (1917), perhaps his best known and most widely quoted decision concerning the implied elements of a contract. In Wood and his other contract law decisions, Cardozo made clear his views that, whenever possible, courts should attempt to instill fairness in an ambiguous contract by analyzing and interpreting its implicit terms to cover situations that the parties may not have provided for explicitly.

In 1932, when ninety-year-old oliver wendell holmes jr., announced his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court, politicians, lawyers, and legal scholars publicly campaigned for Cardozo to succeed him. President herbert hoover, though impressed with Cardozo's credentials and intellect, was initially lukewarm about nominating him to the Court. Two other New Yorkers, Chief Justice charles e. hughes and Justice harlan f. stone, were already on the Court and others in Hoover's administration were concerned about appointing a second Jewish justice to serve in addition to Justice louis d. brandeis. After Stone offered his resignation (which was not accepted) to make room for Cardozo, Hoover was eventually persuaded to ignore the politics of geography and anti-Semitism and named Cardozo to the Court. On February 24, 1932, Cardozo was confirmed unanimously by a voice vote of the Senate, though he was said to be reluctant to leave his family and friends in New York and move to Washington, D.C., to accept the seat.

Though he served on the Court for only six years, Cardozo authored a number of significant decisions. He authored the majority opinion in the Civil Rights case Nixon v. Condon, 286 U.S. 73, 52 S. Ct. 484, 76 L. Ed. 984 (1932). Condon held that a resolution by a state party executive committee, under purported authority of a Texas statute (Vernon's Ann. Civ. St. Tex. art. 3107), which excluded blacks from primary elections, violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Cardozo, for the most part, supported President franklin d. roosevelt's New Deal legislation, writing the majority opinions in Helvering v. Davis, 301 U.S. 619, 57 S. Ct. 904, 81 L. Ed. 307 (1937), and Steward Machine Co. v. Davis, 301 U.S. 548, 57 S. Ct. 883, 81 L. Ed. 1279 (1937), which upheld the constitutionality of the Unemployment Compensation (Social Security Act § 901–910, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1101–1110) and oldage benefits programs (Social Security Act § 201 et seq., 42 U.S.C.A. § 401 et seq.) of the social security act of 1935. Cardozo also authored a number of significant Criminal Law decisions while on the Court, including Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 58 S. Ct. 149, 82 L. Ed. 288 (1937). In Palko, the Court held that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution did not require that the Double Jeopardy Clause contained in the Fifth Amendment be applied to the states. Cardozo favored a "selective incorporation" approach to the Fourteenth Amendment, writing that only select protections of the first eight amendments that "represented the very essence of a scheme of ordered liberty, … principles of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked fundamental," should be imposed upon the states. Palko represented the beginning of the Supreme Court's long struggle to formulate a test for applying the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as a limit on states' powers.

Cardozo, though remembered for his majority opinions, was not afraid to disagree with the majority and wrote some equally significant and stirring dissents while on the Court. In Carter v. Carter Coal Co., 298 U.S. 238, 56 S. Ct. 855, 80 L. Ed. 1160 (1936), one of many cases arising out of constitutional challenges to Roosevelt's New Deal legislation, the Court in a 6–3 vote struck down the 1935 Bituminous Coal Conservation Act (15 U.S.C.A. §§ 801–827), which authorized fixed prices to help stabilize the coal industry. Cardozo maintained that the law was constitutional and necessary to combat the economic problems created by the Great Depression. He wrote that "[a]fter making every allowance for differen[ces] of opinion as to the most efficient cure, the student of the subject is confronted with the indisputable truth that there are ills to be corrected, and ills that had a direct relation to the maintenance of commerce among the states.… An evil existing, and also the power to correct it, the lawmakers were at liberty to use their own discretion in the selection of the means."

Cardozo's body of legal scholarship is not limited to the many important judicial opinions he authored as a state court judge and U.S. Supreme Court justice. He also wrote a number of books which have become classics of legal thought and judicial philosophy. His lectures on the decision-making process that he delivered at Yale Law School and Columbia University early in his career were published in 1921 as a group of essays in The Nature of the Judicial Process, which is still widely used as a textbook for first-year law students. He also wrote The Growth of the Law (1924), The Paradox of Legal Science (1928), and Law and Literature (1931). In all his books, Cardozo sought to define the difficult issues faced by a judge in deciding cases, as well as his beliefs about how the entire legal system could function most effectively.

Cardozo, who never married and remained close to his family throughout his life, was a shy and reclusive man described in one book about the history of the Court as "the hermit philosopher." He remained on the Supreme Court until 1938 when he died of heart trouble at the age of sixty-eight. He is buried in the Cardozo family plot in the cemetery of Shearith Israel congregation at Cypress Hills, Long Island.

Further readings

Congressional Quarterly. 1989. Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Elliott, Stephen P., ed. 1986. A Reference Guide to the United States Supreme Court. New York: Facts on File.

Kaye, Judith S. 1999 "Poetic Justice: He Was a Great Common Law Judge, Responsive To his Times; As Business Relationships Became More Complex and Attenuated, Benjamin Nathan Cardozo Created New—and Lasting—Standards." American Lawyer 21 (December).

Levy, Beryl H. 1938. Cardozo and Frontiers of Legal Thinking. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press.

Pollard, Joseph P. 1970. Mr. Justice Cardozo: A Liberal Mind in Action. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

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