Justice Brennan’s Job Satisfaction Circa 1966

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The latest issue of Harvard Law School’s alumni magazine has an article I wrote about Justice Brennan’s rocky relationship with his alma mater early in his tenure on the Supreme Court.

Accompanying the article is one of my favorite little finds Steve discovered amongst Justice Brennan’s papers which we had to relegate to a footnote in the book.

In 1966, Harvard Law School sent a survey to alumni asking them to answer a series of questions about their career. Brennan kept a copy of his responses in his files.

For the question, “Are you satisfied with your present work?” Brennan checked “very satisfied” – the highest rating. When asked what satisfied him in his work, Brennan marked off “subject matter,” “intellectual stimulation,” “independence,” “people with whom I work,” “variety of work,” “organization for which I work,” and “importance of problems.” He did not check “high prestige of profession,” “helping people,” “high income” – or, least surprisingly, “opportunity for advancement.”

The Washington Post on Sunday included Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion on its list of the best books of 2010.

I’ve generally saved the self-promotional hype for Facebook and Twitter, but thought this honor is worth a mention here on our blog, too.

The blurb on the Post list quotes the perhaps overly-generous concluding line from David Garrow’s Post review of the book from October: “Scrupulously honest and consistently fair-minded, “Justice Brennan” is a supremely impressive work that will long be prized as perhaps the best judicial biography ever written.”

Justice Brennan has also landed on best-of-the-year lists compiled by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Irish Times (of Ireland).

When Brennan Faced the Children’s Express

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I might like to think that I’ve read every interview Justice Brennan ever did with reporters, but over Thanksgiving came proof that I missed at least one.

Not long after his retirement in 1990, Brennan sat down for an interview with some young journalists from the newly established Indianapolis bureau of the Children’s Express. (The story of that news organization, for which students served as editors and reporters, is interesting in its own right.)

I only recently learned about this article because one of the student journalists who participated in the interview, Wendy Potasnik Stern, is the sister of one of my wife’s closest friends dating back to their time growing up together in Indianapolis. In addition to Wendy, who was 17 at the time, the other team members were 15, 12, 11 and 10. (I could have qualified to participate, too, since I turned 15 that year.)

As the students noted in the resulting story, they happened to have interviewed Brennan on Sept. 28, the 34th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s naming him to the Court and two months after Brennan retired suddenly after suffering what his doctors believed was a stroke. (more…)

Justice Brennan & The Press

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NPR’s On the Media broadcast an interview with me over the weekend about some of Justice Brennan’s landmark decisions involving free speech and press freedoms.

Host Brooke Gladstone briefly alluded to what we reveal in Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion about his complicated attitude toward the press. As she put it, “He was a champion of speech and the press and yet, he rarely, if ever, gave interviews and was generally distrustful of reporters.”

The disconnect between Brennan’s work as a champion of women’s rights and his refusal to hire female clerks has gotten the most attention since the book came out but his ambivalent feelings about the press is something Steve and I also found fascinating.

Brennan was an avid consumer of journalism who read at least two newspapers each morning and watched the evening news on television each night. He genuinely believed reporters played a vital role in a democratic society. (more…)

Inside Brennan’s Post-Retirement Chambers

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I saw an op-ed in the Washington Post recently by the former Brennan clerk with the most prominent position in the Obama Administration: Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Most profiles of Genachowski mention that he clerked for both Brennan and David Souter. Not that there should be an asterisk attached, but Genachowski clerked for Brennan after his retirement.

I didn’t have a chance to speak to the half dozen or so clerks who served in Brennan’s chambers post-retirement and have wondered how their experienced differed from those who clerked while he was a sitting justice. The last ones I’d contacted were the four who were supposed to start clerking in July 1990. All but one found themselves out of a job when Brennan suddenly announced his retirement three days before they were supposed to arrive in his chambers.

It’s hard to generalize about the experience of clerks who work for retired justices. Much depends on how active the justice is and I suspect Sandra Day O’Connor’s clerk has plenty to do given how often she sits as an appeals court judge. But Brennan had left the Court at the age of 84 after what his doctors believed was a stroke and sat as a judge only a single time on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Just because the book is finished doesn’t mean I can resist the urge for further research. So I sent emails to four former clerks who served in Brennan’s chambers between 1990 and 1996. (I didn’t bother trying to reach Genachowski, who I figured might be a little hard to reach right now.) (more…)

Brennan High School Dedicated in Texas

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Members of Justice Brennan's family cut a ceremonial ribbon at the dedication of William J. Brennan High School in San Antonio

I finally had a chance to watch a video of the  Nov. 10 dedication ceremony for William J. Brennan High School in San Antonio.  As I previously mentioned, the Northside Independent School District, which names every new high school after a Supreme Court justice, decided to honor Justice Brennan when it opened its newest school this fall.

The ceremony featured appearances by two members of Justice Brennan’s family: his namesake grandson, William J. Brennan IV and his daughter in law, Georgie Brennan. Also in attendance was Brandon Fathy, who, as a seventh grader, wrote the essay convincing the school district to name the school after Brennan. Fathy’s essay was reprinted in the program handed out to attendees.

“Yesterday, I sat next to a good young man who was African-American and who helped me with my homework,” wrote Fathy, who is now a sophomore at Brennan High School. “Then that same day, I went to the library and looked through hundreds of books, and later that day, I rode the bus home with an African American riding beside me. That night I watched the police read the Miranda rights on TV. These almost common events may not have happened if it weren’t for William J. Brennan Jr.” (more…)

Another Take on Brennan’s Dissents

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In October, I highlighted law students complaining about the frequency and length of Justice Brennan’s dissents. As the semester progressed, I came across others with a more positive view of Brennan the dissenter.

First, I saw a post by Jeryl Hayes on Facebook that read, “Justice Brennan, why couldn’t you have lived forever and remained the voice of reason on the Supreme Court?”

I wrote Hayes asking what prompted that post and received a reply a few days later. Hayes, a law student at Washington University in St. Louis, explained she wrote the post while reading several of Justice Brennan’s gender discrimination decisions, including a dissent in Geduldig v. Aiello.

“I actually drew little hearts around his name for this one,” Hayes wrote. “For most of those cases, and especially in his dissent, he covered the same arguments I made in my head while reading the case.”

She added, “Basically, I adore Brennan’s ideology and craft for opinions, and at the time I wrote that post, I felt the need to share it with all my friends (and expose how much of a law school nerd I actually am).” (more…)

Brennan, Stevens and the Death Penalty

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I wrote a piece for Huffington Post yesterday on John Paul Stevens’ headline-making book review and 60 Minutes appearance this past weekend. Stevens explained how he went from supporting capital punishment at the time he joined the U. S. Supreme Court to concluding it is unconstitutional.

I noted Justice Brennan might have felt some measure of vindication had he lived long enough to witness Stevens emerge as a forceful opponent of the death penalty. But it certainly wouldn’t have surprised Brennan, who joined Thurgood Marshall as the Court’s most ardent voices against capital punishment in the 1970s.

At the end of his 34-term career on the Supreme Court, Brennan confidently predicted to his clerks that both Stevens and Harry Blackmun would eventually come to view the death penalty as unconstitutional.

It is a prediction preserved in the narrative history of the 1989-90 term prepared by Brennan’s law clerks at his direction. “Early in the Term, WJB had expressed his view that someday Blackmun (and somewhat less likely Stevens) would ‘come around’ to his view that the death penalty is in all circumstances cruel and unusual punishment,” Brennan’s clerks wrote.

Read the rest here.

The ABA Journal has included the Justice Brennan Blog on its “Blawg 100” list of the year’s 100 best legal blogs.

The ABA included us among five blogs in the “Court Watch” category along with some rather distinguished company such as the granddaddy of them all: SCOTUSblog.

I wondered whether there would be anything left to say about Justice Brennan when we started this blog five months ago. But it’s hardly been a struggle at all to find ways to link Brennan to what’s going on at the Supreme Court and beyond.

I hope this blog has shown the degree to which Justice Brennan remains relevant 20 years after his retirement. (more…)

Airing the Brennan Tapes

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NPR broadcast a story Friday by Nina Totenberg about Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion. Totenberg quoted Steve and me, but more exciting is her use of snippets from Steve’s interviews with Justice Brennan.

This is the first time any excerpts of the 60 hours of tapes have aired publicly. The sound quality is surprisingly good, given that Steve started these interviews in 1986 and used the type of standard cassette tapes you would have found in a Walkman in that era.

Hearing Brennan’s voice is still a novelty for me. I mostly relied on the set of transcripts that Steve gave me soon after I started working on the book in Oct. 2006. (The pile is much fatter than a Manhattan phonebook.)  The first thing I did was read through the transcripts in chronological order.

I didn’t actually hear Brennan’s voice for quite some time. I remember thinking it was much deeper than I’d expected when I first heard it while watching a tape of a 1986 public television documentary about him. (more…)