Biography of Difference Maker William Brennan

Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel have written a fine biography of William Brennan.

Having your boss’ confidence can help you realize your individual objectives.

So can getting along with colleagues and a willingness to sacrifice rhetorical flourishes for more pedestrian prose.

And gains won in one era are by no means permanently ingrained in the nation’s fabric.

These are just some of the lessons I’ve learned thus far from Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel’s Justice Brennan, a highly enjoyable and richly researched biography of the late Supreme Court justice given to me by dear friend Evan Kaplan, one of my top book suppliers.

I’m about 60 percent of the way through the book, whose authors both manifest their sympathy for the belief held by many liberals that Brennan was one of the greatest Supreme Court justices  in the nation’s history while also exploring the reasons why Brennan remains the standard of error that conservatives hope never to repeat.

The book open in Newark, New Jersey, where Brennan was born in the early part of  last century, the son of a local politician.

In his childhood, during his education and even in his years as a New Jersey judge, Brennan did not initially show a hint of the enormous influence he would wield on the court, especially during the years that Earl Warren headed one of America’s three branches of government.

Brennan’s time on the court is the guts of this work, and, thanks to the authors’ extensive knowledge of the law, one of the most informative.  Stern and Wermiel not only explain the fact and constitutional issues inherent in many of the cases they took on, they go behind the scenes to show the negotiations and often fractious personalities on the bench.

It was in this context that Brennan’s relationship with Warren became so central.  The two had a shared agreement on nearly all of the major and minor cases that the court agreed to hear during the time their service overlapped.  Beyond that, though, Warren came to rely on Brennan as a strategist and consensus builder who would work tirelessly and cleverly for the five votes he would explain to each incoming class of clerks he had to get for passage (The authors also explain that Brennan also would plant the seeds of future doctrinal advances in footnotes of a dissent, his ideological opponents learned. ).

Warren and Brennan eventually came to have weekly meetings in which they would discuss the status of cases and the various justices’ opinions.  The authors write in vivid detail how Brennan could, over the course of a number of conversations, often sway his colleagues to expand, narrow or alter their perspective, depending on the case and perceived need.

At the same time, his unassuming manner and comparative lack of ego meant that for much of this time his influence went unrecognized by the public.

Stern and Wermiel take the reader through the intricate discussions that led eventually to a unanimous ruling in Cooper v. Aaron, a case about school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas-Warren tried as a matter of principle to have all such cases be unanimous-as well as the conversations around landmark cases like Griswold v. Connecticut, which established  a right to privacy, or New York Times v. Sullivan, which set the standard for libel law.

The book has a wide array of richly drawn characters, from Brennan and his family to his former professor and colleague Felix Frankfurter, to southerners Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan, who, in one poignant moment, help each other into the chambers.

I’ve just gotten to the point where Warren Burger has ascended to the top seat on the court and is working to start to undo the advances in individual rights made during the late 50s and 60s.   The authors are doing an effective job of showing Brennan’s disappointment at these developments, which are akin to a sand castle being washed away by the advancing tide, leaving little behind.

On the heels of Joe Mathewson’s fine book about the Supreme Court and the press, this biography is both deepening my understanding of the law and the process by which our laws are interpreted as well as furthering my knowledge about the diminutive and well-met Irishman from Newark who utilized his boss’ trust, his relationships with his colleagues and his ability to compromise to make a large impact on the nation’s history.


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