“The quest for freedom, dignity, and the rights of man will never end.”
-- Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.
One of the most consequential progressives in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court is the late Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.
Justice Brennan lived from 1906-1997. He was named to the court by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. Brennan served on the court for 34 years. Eisenhower appointed him because Brennan was a Catholic from a northeastern state. Ike wanted to shore up his political standing in the northeast before the looming 1956 presidential election. On October 16, 1956 Justice Brennan was sworn in just weeks before the November presidential election.
Brennan is generally regarded as the most progressive and influential justice in the modern history of the court. He penned 1,350 opinions that included numerous landmark cases involving social justice, freedom of speech, civil rights, and economic equality. In a 1987 speech, Justice Brennan described the U.S. Constitution as a revered document that exists to guarantee “the essential dignity and worth of each individual.”
Justice Brennan often played an important behind-the-scenes role in building majority or unanimous support for a particular case. In the late 1950s he cobbled together a unanimous decision to require that the Little Rock, Arkansas school board desegregate with all deliberate speed. Despite divisions on the court, Chief Justice Earl Warren was able to announce and read the unanimous opinion for the world to hear.
Justice Brennan helped cobble together a new liberal majority on the court. On March 18, 1963, the new majority turned prior precedents on their heads. On that one single day, the court set standards for Georgia’s state legislative districts, and broadened the rights protecting criminal defendants. The best known of the cases handed down on that fateful day was “Gideon v. Wainwright” that mandated that states provide lawyers for indigent criminal defendants charged with or facing felony charges.
I remember as a child in the 1960s traveling from either Tulsa or Bartlesville to the Oklahoma City area for swimming meets, the billboards on the Turner Turnpike sponsored by the John Birch Society. They cried out for Chief Justice Earl Warren to be impeached. My guess is that after Warren, the next official they wanted to sack was Justice Brennan.
The recent book on the life and legacy of Justice Brennan, “Justice Brennan Liberal Champion,” ends with an inspirational story he liked to recount. "So it is, my friends, with you and me of Irish blood. As we go through life, may we be found lighting the lamps of truth and justice and righteousness, even as our Irish forbears before us, so that as time passes and we move from the scene of action, our own children and their children after them, though we be lost to view, may tell the way we went by the lamps we lighted along life's pathway."
“If we are to be as a shining city on a hill, it will be because of our ceaseless pursuit of the constitutional ideal of human dignity.” –Justice Brennan
NOTE: University of Central Oklahoma Emeritus Professor Tom Guild, a Democrat, is running for the Fifth Congressional District seat in Oklahoma. He is a member of The Brennan Society (http://www.brennansociety.com/), an Oklahoma organization that promotes the memory and philosophy of the late U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.