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'The Biggest Heart in the Building'

By Joan Biskupic
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 25, 1997; Page A15

Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. was remembered yesterday as a bulwark of liberal activism whose effect on America is so great -- and his personality so compelling -- that even those who disagreed with his views said much of his legacy will endure.

Brennan "played a major role in shaping American constitutional law," said conservative Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. "He was also a warm-hearted colleague to those of us who served with him."

"He had the biggest heart of anyone in the building," said Thurgood Marshall Jr., son of the late justice. "Justice Brennan was not just my father's closest and dearest partner but his hero in the pursuit of equality and justice."

Marshall, President Clinton's Cabinet secretary, said his father and Brennan could not have been more different as people, given the backgrounds from which they emerged. "But they both believed fervently in the very same ideals."

News of Brennan's death, coming shortly after noon yesterday, spread quickly among former colleagues and friends. He was known for the force of his opinions -- more than 1,000 -- that embodied the notion that the federal courts should actively seek to right society's wrongs. He was venerated yesterday for his persuasive approach and good humor, and for a charisma that will help him be remembered for generations.

"There are few people who are truly extraordinary and we don't always know the reasons why they rise above the rest of us. But he did," U.S. appeals court judge Richard S. Arnold of Little Rock, who was a law clerk to Brennan in 1960, said yesterday. "His chief characteristics were kindness and love -- to everybody."

Brennan, who retired from the court in 1990 and initially kept up professional and personal contacts, had been in poor health in recent months. He died at a nursing home in Arlington, where he had been rehabilitating after he broke his hip in November.

A court spokeswoman said Brennan's body would lie in state from 10:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. Monday at the Supreme Court Building. His funeral is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Mathews Catholic Church in the District.

All quarters of government reacted to word of Brennan's death. Clinton, who said Brennan's "devotion to the Bill of Rights inspired millions of Americans and countless young law students, including myself," ordered flags flown at half-staff at government buildings, military facilities and U.S. embassies worldwide.

In addition to Rehnquist, three other of Brennan's former court colleagues issued statements of admiration yesterday.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who sat with Brennan for 15 years and shared some of his liberal views, said, "The blend of wisdom, humor, love and learning that Justice Brennan shared with his colleagues -- indeed with all those privileged to know him -- was truly unique. He was a great man and a warm friend."

"Justice Brennan's death means the passing of an era in the history of the Supreme Court," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said. "In addition to the remarkable legal legacy he left behind, he left a legacy of friendship and good will wherever he went."

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said, "Justice Brennan was one of the great friends of freedom, freedom for those who have it and freedom for those who yet must seek it."

Justice Antonin Scalia, who strongly disagreed with Brennan's liberal approach, nonetheless once called Brennan "probably the most influential justice of the century" and "the intellectual leader of the movement that really changed, fundamentally, the court's approach toward the Constitution."

Joshua E. Rosenkranz, a 1987-88 clerk who is now executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said, "I would be willing to bet that there is not a single person in our nation who hasn't been touched by Justice Brennan's legacy, whether they know it or not."

Attorney General Janet Reno said she was sad to hear Brennan had died and added: "Justice Brennan stood up for people who had no choice. He devoted his long, rich life to helping the American justice system live up to its ideals. He made a difference, and he will be remembered always by all Americans who prize the rule of law."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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