Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo

Justice Cardozo sitting Justice Cardozo head and shoulders

Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo


Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo was a distinguished jurist who had been appointed to the court by President Hoover to fill the seat of the legendary Oliver Wendell Holmes. Modest in demeanor and with a strong philosophical bent, he was the author of four volumes of essays on the philosophy of law prior to being appointed to the court. Cardozo's view of the Constitution was in sympathy with Hamilton's, which he expressed this way: ". . .the great generalities of the Constitution have a content and a significance that vary from age to age. The method of free decision sees thru the transitory particulars and reaches what is permanent behind them."

One historian would describe his work this way: "Every law school graduate can recognize a Cardozo opinion by a quick perusal. His style is unmistakable: limpid clarity, conciseness suffused with a moral almost spiritual luminosity, and a command of historical material that is unrivaled in the entire common-law tradition. The beauty of his prose must be rated with those of the Greek and Roman classicists whose works he read in the original language for his own pleasure." 1 Another would appraise his place in history: "Except for Holmes himself, Justice Cardozo was the preeminent judge of the first half of the twentieth century. Indeed, Cardozo was the outstanding common-law jurist of the twentieth century." 2 And one biographical dictionary would summarize his legacy this way: "Shy and sensitive, immensely learned yet natively humble, Cardozo transcended the heated controversies of this day to take place as one of the dozen or so truly great judges in the Court's history."

"In truth, I am nothing but a plodding mediocrity--please observe, a plodding mediocrity--for a mere mediocrity does not go very far, but a plodding one gets quite a distance. There is joy in that success, and a distinction can come from courage, fidelity and industry."

Justice Cardozo's self-description

1. Asch, Sidney, The Supreme Court and Its Great Justices, Arco, 1972, pg. 153.
2. Schwartz, Bernard, A History of the Supreme Court, Oxford University Press, 1993, pg. 229.