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William J. Brennan Jr.

Washington Post Editorial
Saturday, July 26, 1997; Page A24

William Brennan wasn't expecting much the day he was summoned to the White House in 1956 -- certainly not to be named to the Supreme Court. Nor was much expected of him after President Eisenhower announced the nomination. Mr. Brennan was no giant of jurisprudence at the time; he was a former labor lawyer who had risen on the New Jersey bench to a position on the state supreme court. As the son of working-class Irish immigrants, and a Democrat, he made a useful appointee for a Republican administration seeking Catholic votes in the Northeast.

But there was something about William Brennan. It caught the attention of Attorney General Herbert Brownell, who heard him give a speech at a Washington conference and was so taken with it that he urged the president to consider the New Jersey jurist for the high court. And over the next 34 years it enabled him to play a historic role in shaping much of the country's legal and social agenda.

It wasn't just his personal charm or immense likability, although they certainly helped in his work of convincing, persuading, cajoling and perhaps occasionally shaming his fellow justices and citizens in his relentless pursuit of what he thought right and good for the country. There was to Mr. Brennan a basic decency -- consistent, sustained and undisputed -- that often disarmed his opponents and carried more force than his arguments.

Justice Brennan was the bane of constitutional strict constructionists. One of them, the columnist James J. Kilpatrick, summarized their objections in a farewell to "my exasperating friend" written on Mr. Brennan's retirement from the court seven years ago: "In some mystic fashion, Brennan proposed to divine the intentions and desires of 'the community.' He sought to impose upon the Constitution his own conception of 'social progress' and 'changes of social circumstances.' "

Justice David H. Souter said on Mr. Brennan's death Thursday: "One can agree with the Brennan opinions and one may disagree with them, but their collective influence is an enormously powerful defining force in the contemporary life of this republic." Over the years we agreed with much of what he did: for civil rights, equal representation, prisoners' rights and a free press -- and against the death penalty. On occasion we disagreed. The richness and range of his opinions should give pause to those among us today who are so quick to categorize a nominee on superficial grounds and to predict all of the nominee's future choices from it. As for the business of whether he strayed too far from the Founders' intent, we'd say only that one of the finest outcomes to be expected from any such exercise in the creation of a democracy is a society that produces, honors and heeds people like William Brennan.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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