Any list of the most important and influential Americans of the 20th century would have to include William Brennan, whose 34-year tenure as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court coincided with –and in many ways both reflected and influenced – a period of extraordinary change both in American society and in its jurisprudence. Liberal icon and lightening rod for conservative rancor, Brennan was at the center of many of the Court’s highest profile decisions.
In an authorized biography entitled "Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion," journalist Stephen Wermeil and attorney Seth Stern provide a balanced and thorough overview of Brennan’s long and extraordinary life. Because Wemiel had the opportunity to interview Brennan before his death in 1997 and because the authors had access to Brennan’s personal notes and files, the book provides significant insight into the Supreme Court’s inner workings.
The book explores Brennan’s early life, including his childhood and his years at Harvard Law School, where he took classes with Felix Frankfurter (with whom Brennan would later serve on the U.S. Supreme Court – Frankfurter did not remember Brennan, who had not been a particularly brilliant law student). The book also examines Brennan’s early career as a labor lawyer in Newark and then as a state court judge in New Jersey.
But the bulk of the book is devoted to Brennan’s years on the Supreme Court. Brennan was nominated for the Court by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, though Brennan was a lifelong Democrat. With an eye on the 1956 presidential election, Eisenhower wanted to nominate a youthful Catholic, preferably one with state judicial experience. Few candidates met all of these criteria, so Brennan found himself on the Supreme Court at age 50, with only seven years of state trial and appellate court judicial experience. (Eisenhower is reported to have later regretted the nomination.)
Brennan would quickly become a key ally and working partner of Chief Justice Earl Warren, together exercising an expansive vision of judicial authority. The authors refer to Brennan’s collaborative relationship with Warren as "one of the most enduring friendships important alliances in the history of the Supreme Court," resulting, among other things in an historic and surprisingly enduring expansion of civil rights.
Brennan arrived after the Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring "separate but equal" to be "inherently unequal." However, he soon became an indispensible part of the working majority on the court that operated with the view that for too long the Court had, in the name of judicial restraint, abdicated its responsibility to protect civil liberties.
Brennan himself developed an activist, results-oriented approach, first manifest in cases dealing with segregation and racial inequality, but soon extended to a host of other areas, including criminal procedure, privacy, voting rights and obscenity. Brennan would be in the majority in a wide range of controversial opinions, including those involving abortion, school prayer, busing and affirmative action.
As a result of these decisions, the Court attracted fierce criticisms that it was acting in the role of Platonic Guardian and operating as a "roving commission" to do justice as they conceived it, in the process trammeling majoritarian institutions.
The activist judicial approach of Brennan and his liberal colleagues on the Court triggered a strong political backlash. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, as well as Richard Nixon’s campaign in 1968, was in many ways built around criticisms of the Court and its liberal agenda. As the Court’s membership changed in the 70’s and 80’s due to the conservatives political successes, Brennan found himself dissenting more frequently and sometimes isolated – but still able to influence colleagues and, to a certain extent, to protect decisions of the Warren Court era.
Though the biography is generally favorable, the portrait that emerges is relatively balanced. Brennan appears as a conscientious and effective jurist who, as a result of the strength of his personal charm, principles and intellect became, as the authors claim "one of the most influential justices of the 20th century."
Brennan’s life story is well told in this detailed account, which not only examines his judicial career, but also his life off the court, including his marriage, his friendships, his religious life and even his finances. The book is filled with interesting insights and anecdotes, such as Brennan’s passionate opposition to the death penalty, and, on a more personal note, his marriage to his long-time secretary, Mary Fowler, just three months after the death of his first wife, Marjorie, to whom had had been married for nearly all of his adult life.
Along the way, the authors provide deep insight into how the Court works and how it has had such an extraordinary influence on so many aspects of American life and society.
Despite the many years of conservative majorities that followed Brennan’s tenure on the Court, a surprisingly large part of Brennan’s legacy remains intact. In areas such as civil rights, privacy, voting rights and criminal procedure, decisions that when first made were highly controversial remain the law of the land. It is perhaps fitting that in his confirmation hearing, David Souter, Brennan’s replacement on the Court, referred to Brennan as "one of the most fearlessly principled guardians the Constitution ever had."
I enjoyed reading this book and I have no hesitation recommending it. I will say that reading the book occasioned much thought and even concern as I reflected on Brennan’s brand of judicial activism. Though the Warren Court’s civil rights decisions were essential to removing deep racial injustices, the activist approach the Court employed led to other decisions about which it is difficult for me to feel quite as comfortable, even if just from an analytical point of view.
Moreover, an activist approach that finds rights and legal requirements without an explicit textual basis in the Constitution can be used for conservative as well as liberal purposes, as it might be argues subsequent courts have proven.
Reflecting on this afforded me a new appreciation for the merits of judicial restraint. In reading this book, I found it striking that after the first few years of the civil rights cases, Justices Hugo Black and John Marshal Harlan II, who had been important participants in many of the Warren Court’s early civil rights decisions, began pulling back and increasingly began refusing to follow the liberal majority. The book suggests the two justices (particularly Black) may have just been getting old. Perhaps I am getting old too, because I found myself appreciating their perspective.