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William J. Brennan

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William J. Brennan, Jr.

William Joseph Brennan (April 25, 1906July 24, 1997) was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He believed in the "essential dignity and worth of each individual," his words from a 1987 speech.

Brennan was the second of eight children. His parents, William Brennan and Agnes (McDermott) were Irish immigrants. They met in the United States, although both were originally from County Roscommon in Ireland. His father had little education; he worked as a metal polisher. However, he rose to a position of leadership, serving as the Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Newark from 1917 to 1930.

Brennan attended public shools in Newark, New Jersey, graduating from Barringer High School. He then attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated with a degree in Economics in 1928.

Brennan completed his law degree at Harvard in 1931 and entered private practice in his home state of New Jersey. He practiced labor law.

He entered the Army as a Major in March 1942, and left as a Colonel in 1945. He did legal work for the ordnance division. In 1949, Brennan was appointed to the Superior Court (a Trial court) by New Jersey Governor Alfred E. Driscoll. In 1951, Driscoll appointed him to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

He was named to the U.S. Supreme Court through a recess appointment by Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, shortly before the 1956 presidential election. Presidential advisers thought the appointment of Catholic Democrat from the northeast would woo critical voters in the upcoming election for Eisenhower, a Republican. He was confirmed by the United States Senate with only Senator Joseph McCarthy dissenting. He filled the seat vacated by Sherman Minton. He held the post until his retirement on July 20, 1990 for health reasons. Brennan then taught at Georgetown University Law Center until 1994.

With 1,360 opinions, he is second only to William O. Douglas in number of opinions written while a Supreme Court justice. An outspoken liberal throughout his career, he joined the Warren Court's dramatic expansion of individual rights, particularly with respect to voting, criminal proceedings and the free speech and establishment clauses of the First Amendment. On the more moderate Burger Court, he was a staunch opponent of the death penalty, and a supporter of abortion rights, and joined the majority in landmark rulings on both issues. With the accession of William Rehnquist to the position of Chief Justice, Brennan found himself more frequently isolated, often joined in his opinions only by Thurgood Marshall. Brennan's conservative detractors, while acknowleding his legal acumen, thought him the embodiment of the worst features of judicial activism.

He married Marjorie Leonard when he was 21. They had met in high school. They eventually had three children: William, Nancy and Hugh. Marjorie died in 1982. In 1985, he married Mary Fowler, who had served as his secretary for 26 years. He retired in 1990 and was succeeded on the Court by Justice David Souter.


Preceded by:
Sherman Minton
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
October 16, 1956July 20, 1990
Succeeded by:
David Souter

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