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Law & Policy


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Supreme Court

Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion by Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) Justice Brennan is an insider look at court history and the life of William Brennan (1906-1997), champion of free speech and public access to information, and widely considered the most influential Supreme Court justice of the twentieth century. Brennan served as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from 1956 to 1990 and was known during his term for being a leader of the judicially liberal wing of the Court. But the Court and all of American politics is still roiled by the 40-year long conservative backlash that Brennan's decisions about school prayer, the death penalty, and affirmative action helped fuel. While he remains a hero to two generations of progressive lawyers including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, he is also still the symbol of judicial activism decried by conservatives.

Before his death, Brennan granted coauthor Stephen Wermiel, a Wall Street Journal reporter, who covered the Supreme Court for 12 years and teaches constitutional law at American University Washington College of Law, access to a trove of personal and court materials that will not be available to the public until 2017. Wermiel also conducted more than 60 hours of interviews with Brennan over the course of six years with the justice in his chambers, and often sat in on morning coffee meetings between Brennan and his clerks, or listened while he prepared for oral arguments. No other biographer has enjoyed this kind of access to a Supreme Court justice or to his papers.

Justice Brennan makes public for the first time the contents of what Jeffrey Toobin calls a coveted set of documents, Brennans case histories, in which he recorded the strategizing behind all the major battles of the past half century, including Roe v. Wade, affirmative action, the death penalty, obscenity law, and the constitutional right to privacy.

Revelations on a more intimate scale include how Brennan refused to hire female clerks even as he wrote groundbreaking womens rights decisions, his complex stance as a justice and a Catholic, and new details on Brennans unprecedented working relationship with Chief Justice Earl Warren. This information intensely valuable to readers of all political persuasions will cement Brennans reputation as epic playmaker of the Courts most liberal era.

Coauthor Seth Stern graduated from Harvard Law School in 2001 and has been a reporter for Congressional Quarterly since 2004.

During his tenure from 1956 to 1990, Brennan provided more than 1,350 opinions on a wide variety of issues. The authors trace Brennan's life from corporate attorney to lawyer for the Department of Justice during World War II, subsequent selection as a state judge and then youthful appointment to the Supreme Court. The bulk of Justice Brennan is dedicated to examining the forces at work throughout his tenure, and his deep, abiding passion for, and commitment to, human dignity.

Anyone who wants to appreciate the life, times, and jurisprudence of one of the most interesting and influential liberal justices of the twentieth century must read Justice Brennan. At a time when the very idea of a liberal justice seems out of reach, it is essential for Americans to understand just what our nation has lost. Geoffrey R. Stone, professor of law, University of Chicago

Justice Brennan is a superb account of how a relatively obscure Irish Catholic Republican judge from New Jersey became the most influential Supreme Court justice of the past century, along the way making America into a more just and equal society. This compelling book also provides unparalleled insights into the workings of the Supreme Court. Walter Dellinger, Supreme Court Advocate and former Attorney General

The book's strength is Wermiel's access to Brennan's private case notes (which are closed to the public until 2017) and dozens of interviews with Brennan himself. The case notes provide a detailed and fascinating account of how the Supreme Court functioned during Brennan's long tenure (from 1956 to 1990) that easily outshines recent high-profile books purporting to break the Court's seal of secrecy. Nowhere will readers find a better explanation of how the mix of personality and political philosophy drove, and presumably still drives, the Court. Both legal scholars and general readers will be delighted with this well-written, superbly documented biography, which may make liberals nostalgic for Brennan's court. Publishers Weekly, starred review

The authors balance differing accounts of Brennan the jurist and the man, presenting an evenhanded portrait of the affable but stubborn Justice. Stern and Wermiel thoroughly cover such divisive issues as racial integration, gender inequality, abortion, pornography, the rights of criminal defendants and upholding the death penalty. Despite his outward joviality, Brennan did not reveal personal insights with those closest to him, including his devoted clerks, but his true passion comes through clearly: his love for the potential power of the law to help or harm humanity. A canny consensus broker, though perhaps pedestrian in opinion writing, his legacy as a judicial activist a term deployed both proudly and pejoratively toward Brennan cannot be diminished. The book is dense, and although the authors take pains to explain legal terminology and implications of case outcomes, it may be tough going for those with limited familiarity with court proceedings. Intriguing behind-the-scenes look for readers with an interest in social justice, focusing on how one man's allegiance to guiding principles transformed this nation's judicial system. Kirkus Reviews

Here is a comprehensive biography of the Supreme Court Justice whose liberal agenda profoundly affected public policy in the second half of the 20th century. Sweeping, riveting, Justice Brennan is a revelatory telling of the extraordinary life of the Supreme Court's greatest liberal and preeminent playmaker, based on unprecedented access. The authors balance differing accounts of Brennan the jurist and the man, presenting an evenhanded portrait of the affable but stubborn justice. It is a historic achievement.


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