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Portrait of William J. Brennan
Portrait of William Joseph Brennan, Jr..
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.
William Joseph Brennan, Jr.

b. April 25, 1906, Newark, NJ
d. July 24, 1997, Arlington, VA

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Born and raised in New Jersey, William Brennan was the second of eight children born to William Brennan and Agnes McDermott Brennan, who had immigrated from Ireland in the late 19th century. Although mostly uneducated, Brennan's father worked his way up from working as a metal polisher to serving as Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Newark (1917-1930). His son attended public schools in Newark and then the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 1928 with a degree in economics. He was accepted at Harvard Law School and got his degree in 1931. He returned to Newark, where he entered private practice with a focus on labor law. In 1942 he entered the Army as a major, working as a judge advocate general, and he rose to the rank of colonel before leaving in 1945.

In 1949 the governor of New Jersey appointed Brennan to the state Superior Court and, in 1951, to the New Jersey Supreme Court. President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Brennan to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1956, and he was confirmed by the Senate with only one vote in dissent, that of Senator Joseph McCarthy. On joining the Court, Brennan commented that he felt like "a mule at the Kentucky Derby."

Brennan, an outspoken liberal, was instrumental in extending individual rights during the years Chief Justice Earl Warren presided over the Court (1953-1969). Amiable and outgoing, he was a significant force behind the scenes, cajoling and coaxing conservative justices to join in majority decisions. He was an ardent opponent of the death penalty and was particularly influential in expanding the right of free speech and limiting the scope of libel laws. In his first term the Court decided 12 cases testing laws designed to combat the Communist "menace." In part because of Brennan, the Court ruled against the government and for the rights of the accused individuals in all 12 cases. Brennan was already remarkably influential by 1962, when the addition of Justice Arthur Goldberg solidified the liberal majority. With a clear writing style that avoided abstractions and a good working relationship with his colleagues on the Court, Brennan was able to write opinions that appeared centrist while favoring individual rights over government powers.

Brennan remained a persuasive force even after Warren Burger became chief justice in 1969. After 1975, Brennan and Thurgood Marshall were the only liberal justices left on the Court, but Brennan remained one of the Court's intellectual leaders, and he became known for his many impassioned dissents. Brennan believed that it was inadvisable and, indeed, impossible to read the Constitution exactly as it was originally intended, that any reading of the document had to take into consideration the current historical and social context. As Republicans became politically ascendant, they sought to combat this judicial philosophy by appointing justices who believed, to the contrary, that the Constitution had to be interpreted strictly according to what it originally meant.

Brennan retired in 1990 for health reasons and taught at Georgetown University Law Center until 1994. During his career he authored more than 1,300 opinions. Many consider him to have been one of the most influential justices ever to serve on the Court.

John Fox, a writer and documentary film producer, was series producer of the Emmy-winning PBS series HERITAGE: CIVILIZATION AND THE JEWS. Editor-in-chief of the award-winning HERITAGE DVD-ROM, he supervised the creation of its 540-map interactive atlas of world history. He is currently writing a book about the growth of communal intelligence over the centuries.

William O. Douglas Earl Warren John Marshall Harlan II William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Warren Burger view all biographies Hugo Black Felix Frankfurter Harry Blackmun Lewis F. Powell, Jr. William Rehnquist Sandra Day O'Connor