Louis D. Brandeis and the United Shoe Machinery Company

12Oct10

During Brandeis’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings, the charge that gave him the most trouble was the accusation that he acted in bad faith while he acted as counsel (and for years afterward) for the United Shoe Machinery Company. Through the use of patents and restrictive leases the USM maintained a near monopoly on shoe production in the United States during the early 20th century. When Brandeis began his campaign against trusts, he frequently railed against the USM, even testifying in Congress against their business practices. What made this situation ethically tricky for Brandeis was that he had at one served as counsel for USM, and even sat on their board of directors. During Brandeis’ confirmation hearings, USM accused him of bad faith and hypocrisy, and even claimed that he helped create the leases that he was later to campaign against.

This story has been told numerous times, particularly in all of the Brandeis’ biographies. However, it has gotten a new in-depth look in a recent article in The American Journal of Legal History:  “The ‘People’s Lawyer’ Revisited: Louis D. Brandeis Versus the United Shoe Machinery Company” by John Braeman (Volume 50, no. 3, pp. 284-304.) Professor Braeman looks at the evidence on both sides of the dispute and suggests that Brandeis may have overstated the threat of the USM’s business practices and that Brandeis may have in fact acted unethically.

The article is an interesting read that should be sought out by all people being interested in Brandeis. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be available on the Internet, so it’ll be another article to be read the next time you’re in a law library.

Update: Anyone interested in this story can read Brandeis’ defense in his own words in a letter to Senator Moses Clapp, dated February 24, 1912.  In it, Brandeis provides  a timeline of when he did, and didn’t, work for USM; the capacity of his work for them; a chronology of his changing views towards their business practices; and just why he viewed their monopoly to be so harmful. Unfortunately, we do not have this letter in our collection so I can’t post a copy of it here, but it is reprinted in volume 2 of Urofsky and Levy’s Letters of Louis D. Brandeis on pages 551 – 560.

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