Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion
Two journalists examine the life and legacy of William Brennan, the liberal Supreme Court justice who left his mark on the US Constitution.
William Brennan was probably the most liberal US Supreme Court justice in the post-World War II era. Embracing a progressive, expansive view of “equal protection” under the law, Brennan rejected discrimination against blacks, women, gays, and the poor. In the realm of criminal justice, Brennan’s controversial decisions enlarged the legal protections granted to suspects, providing them a bolstered right to silence, the right to court-appointed public defenders, and more.Skip to next paragraph
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Even more controversially, Brennan carved out a constitutionally protected “right to privacy” that would pave the way for 1973’s “Roe v. Wade” decision.
While Brennan’s brand of liberal judicial activism thrived in the 1960s (during the tenure of his friend, Chief Justice Earl Warren), the last two decades of his long term (1956-90) saw a conservative backlash, as right-wing politicians (like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan) joined forces with “strict constructionist” judges (like William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia) to roll back many of Brennan’s progressive rulings.
Authors Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel are both legal scholars and journalists who have a deep understanding of how the Supreme Court works. Wermiel actually interviewed Brennan dozens of times before the “liberal champion” died in 1997; Wermiel was also given access to Brennan’s files and notes, allowing the authors a true “behind the scenes” look at some of the most important Supreme Court decisions of the last half century. As a work of legal analysis, Justice Brennan provides unique insights into Brennan’s own legal thinking and how he lobbied other justices to support his views.
The authors also describe Brennan’s middle-class, Irish-American childhood as the son of a Jersey City politician. Indeed, Brennan gained many of his legendary political skills from watching his dad: young Brennan “observed ... the way Bill [Senior] remembered names and faces and could fit in so comfortably at a firehouse or corner tavern,” the authors write. But beyond Brennan’s undeniable affability, we never see into the deeper recesses of Brennan’s character.