Comprehensive biography of the Supreme Court Justice whose liberal agenda profoundly affected public policy in the second half of the 20th century.
During his tenure from 1956 to 1990, William Brennan (1906–1997) provided more than 1,350 opinions on a wide variety of issues. As the subtitle indicates, Congressional Quarterly reporter Stern and Brennan expert Wermiel (Constitutional Law/American Univ.) focus on Brennan’s legacy as a dedicated defender of those marginalized by mainstream America. His allegiance to those less privileged, as well as his use of charm and compromise to achieve goals, came from a childhood spent observing his Irish immigrant father, a union official elected to several terms as a Newark, N.J., city commissioner. The authors trace Brennan’s life from corporate attorney to lawyer for the Army during World War II, subsequent selection as a state judge and then youthful appointment to the Supreme Court. The bulk of the book is dedicated to examining the forces at work throughout his tenure, and his deep, abiding passion for, and commitment to, human dignity. The authors balance differing accounts of Brennan the jurist and the man, presenting an evenhanded portrait of the affable but stubborn Justice. Stern and Wermiel thoroughly cover such divisive issues as racial integration, gender inequality, abortion, pornography, the rights of criminal defendants and upholding the death penalty. Despite his outward joviality, Brennan did not reveal personal insights with those closest to him, including his devoted clerks, but his true passion comes through clearly: his love for the potential power of the law to help or harm humanity. A canny consensus broker, though perhaps pedestrian in opinion writing, his legacy as a judicial activist—a term deployed both proudly and pejoratively toward Brennan—cannot be diminished. The book is dense, and although the authors take pains to explain legal terminology and implications of case outcomes, it may be tough going for those with limited familiarity with court proceedings.
Intriguing behind-the-scenes look for readers with an interest in social justice, focusing on how one man’s allegiance to guiding principles transformed this nation’s judicial system.