Born on April 25, 1906, in Newark, New Jersey, William J. Brennan Jr. attended Harvard Law School and established a career as a trial lawyer. He later worked as a judge for his home state in various courts and was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the mid-1950s. Brennan established a humanistic record that supported individual rights. He died on July 24, 1997, in Arlington, Virginia.
Background and Education
William Joseph Brennan Jr. was born in Newark, New Jersey, on April 25, 1906, with his parents immigrating to North America from County Roscommon, Ireland. The second of eight children, he went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Commerce and Finance before entering Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1931. Brennan was admitted to the bar the following year and joined a New Jersey law firm, handling labor trials.
He married Marjorie Leonard as a college undergrad, with the couple going on to have three children.
Appointed to the Supreme Court
Brennan served in World War II, earning the rank of colonel as well as a Legion of Merit award. He returned to private practice and by the end of the 1940s accepted a Superior Court judge position offered by Governor Alfred E. Driscoll.
Brennan became known and lauded for his court procedural reforms, eventually appointed to his state's supreme court and garnering attention in Washington, D.C. The Democratic judge was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, in what was seen as a nonpartisan move, with Brennan confirmed to his seat in 1957.
Vision of Individual Rights
Brennan had a humanist vision for the law, believing in the fundamental rights of individuals, with Supreme Court analysts considering his decisions highly influential. He supported decisions that were in favor of U.S. citizens having the right to petition the federal court system; Brennan was also a major advocate of individuals having appropriate due process when it comes to government bureaucracy, as in the 1970 case of Goldberg v. Kelly, establishing the right of a hearing before welfare benefits can be cut.
He was also known for the 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan decision, which stated that the press can only be found potentially libelous if there's malicious intent behind the sharing of wrong information.
Brennan also supported court rulings that supported Affirmative Action programs, gender equality and a woman's right to choose. An avowed Roman Catholic, Brennan nonetheless believed in the importance of a division between church and state. And along with fellow jurist Thurgood Marshall, he was adamantly against the death penalty, citing its Constitutional violations and backing the 1972 Furman v. Georgia decision.
Brennan's wife died in 1982, and he married shortly thereafter to his secretary, Mary Fowler. He retired from his court duties in July, 1990 after suffering a second stroke, having served on the court for more than 33 years. More than 1,300 Supreme Court opinions bear Brennan's name, and he was liked even by his adversaries due to his reported fairness, kindness and powerful skills of diplomacy.
He died on July 24, 1997, at the age of 91, in Arlington, Virginia. The Brennan Center for Justice, a policy institute at New York University, has been established in his honor.
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