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Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion

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4.05 of 5 stars 4.05  ·  rating details  ·  155 ratings  ·  35 reviews
A sweeping insider look at the life of William Brennan, champion of free speech and widely considered the most influential Supreme Court justice of the twentieth century



Before his death, William Brennan granted Stephen Wermiel access to volumes of personal and court materials that are sealed to the public until 2017. These are what Jeffrey Toobin has called “a coveted set
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Hardcover, 688 pages
Published October 4th 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published January 1st 2010)
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Community Reviews

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Brian
A bit dry but ultimately readable, Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion offers important insights into the life, philosophy, and Supreme Court decisions of Justice William Brennan.

Arguably one of the most influential justices of the 20th century, Brennan's legacy lives on as our society continues to debate a multitude of issues related to our democratic republic and the role of the courts in our system of government.

Much maligned by right-wing propagandists as a "judicial activist," Brennan was ac
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Jean Poulos
“Justice Brennan” provides the most comprehensive and well organized look at the liberal jurist to date. Too bad it was not released closer to his death in 1997. Wermiel had recorded 60 interviews with Brennan and had access to all his paper; apparently he had completed part of the book when Brennan died. In 2006 Wermiel brought in Seth stein who reorganized the vast amount of material and drafted most of the chapter. The authors attempted to reveal the complicated man beneath. Brennan hated por ...more
Andy Miller
A great biography about a great man. The book does a great job outlining Brennan's early life and background and the authors leave it up to the reader to see how his pre-Supreme Court personality made him so effective once he was on the Court. One example was that he represented corporations against labor unions for a number of years and despite the contentious nature of these cases, opposing litigators always ended up liking and respecting Brennan.That trait served him well while on the Court, ...more
Toni Konkoly
This is the first biography I've ever read all the way through to the end. Going into the book, all I knew about Brennan was that I wished dearly that the Court had someone who could fairly be described as his heir -- I came out of law school decidedly more moderate / skeptical of the proper role for the judicial branch to play in effectuating social progress, but it seems to me that when four seats are occupied by diehard far-right conservatives, it's only fair and proper that the Left have at ...more
Emma
quite an interesting read. especially if you aren't as familiar with the supreme court justices as you perhaps ought to be. justice brennan was one of those truly rare and wonderful men who was not afraid of his own humanity and really believed in making the world a better place to live in...for ALL of us. made me realize that i'm far too cynical about things that i know far too little about. and that's a good thing (the realization, that is). this book helped me to regain a little of my sense o ...more
Harry Lane
The importance of the Supreme Court in American life is often overlooked. It is true that some few decisions provoke public attention and sometimes virulent opposition, but in the main, the effects are indirect. This biography is authorized and draws on a vast range of materials and interviews to paint a detailed picture of the man and his work. It strikes me as balanced and realistic, neither too admiring nor iconoclastic. It is readable and accessible, but goes into reasonable detail concernin ...more
Steven Peterson
Do you want to know more about Supreme Court Justice William Brennan? This is a good resource. The book is functionally written; the prose does not sing. But the work traces his life in detail from birth to his retirement from the Court in 1990 to the last part of his life. The book gives a good sense of Brennan-the-man. The volume also does a nice job outlining his judicial career and key moments of his tenure.
Rick
Excited. I grabbed this off the Biography shelves at Camden Public Library the other day, sat down, and proceeded to tear-through the middle 100 pages ... about his nomination and elevation to the High Court. I look forward to getting to the parts about the apex of his power on the Court (1964-70), when he essentially Constitutionalized the entire New Deal and Great Society.
Claire
The best judicial biography I've read. Includes an incredible amount of detail and yet maintains easy readability. The anecdotes were fun and humanizing. The descriptions of complicated court cases and constitutional concepts were so clear and accessible to anyone without a JD. The amount of research that went into the book is staggering. Read this book!
Bob H
This is a magisterial history of a Supreme Court justice, not so much a biography -- though that it is -- but a story of his times. Indeed, his term spanned the 1950s to 1990, from the Eisenhower years to George H. W. Bush, a tumultuous and important period in the Court in which he had a pivotal role. We see the major cases -- school prayer, free speech, reproductive choice, death penalty -- but we also see how Brennan would defend those cases in later terms, as new colleagues and new Chief Just ...more
Christopher
Richly detailed and illuminating of how historically conservative the current court is compared to what it has been previously.
Jon
Great biography about one of the greatest Justices of all time. He still does not get his due.
Brian
Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel provide an excellent (although very pro) biography of Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. Brennan was one of the longest serving justices in modern history celebrating around forty years on the court. He was in the majority opinions more often than most and was a crucial swing player in Supreme Court politics. If you want a real nitty gritty look at the major cases of the modern era from Baker v. Carr to Roe v. Wade you can see Brennan's influence running throug ...more
Bill
Interesting only for Supreme Court geeks and/or Brennan fanatics. (Or Brennan haters, I guess, because I'm sure this book offers plenty of fuel to keep the hate flames alive. From a policy perspective I agree with nearly all of Brennan's decisions, and even I was irritated by some of his free-flowing "dignity of the person" based jurisprudence.)

Brennan is one of my heroes. But it has to be said that, in the realm of Supreme Court Justices, Brennan was not a great writer or brilliant thinker. Wh
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Evan Thomas
This is that rare easy to read judicial biography. While it suffers from the most common pitfalls of the genre (e.g., attempting to impart drama if not melodrama to the exchange of memos), it steps lightly through them. An unusual feature, frequently commented on by critics, is the unprecedented access given to one of the authors. So, while we learn Brennan's first wife may have been an alcoholic, the fact is stated with little explanation or interpretive insight, only to periodically re-surface ...more
Michelle
While I'm not sure this book is for non-legal types or for people without a particular interest in the Supreme Court and its history and politics, I really enjoyed reading this biography (and not just because one of the authors is one of my favorite law school professors). Really interesting insight into how Supreme Court justices work together, especially during the Warren Court years that civil rights advocates like myself dream about. The book also contained numerous lessons in how people of ...more
Kevin Scott
This took me much longer to read than I expected, but not because it wasn't interesting. I thought the authors offered a fair view of Brennan, and accurately reflected the arc of his career (outsized influence under Warren, more influential than expected under Burger and Rehnquist, and prone to very bitter dissents as he saw the legacy he build being chipped away). The personal information is interesting, too, and germaine. And not really gossip. I thought the narratives of his experiences with ...more
Mindex
This was a great readable book about an important period in the Supreme Court. I had no idea that Justice Brennan was even involved in, much less had such an influence on so many important issues. It is hard to imagine a time before these issues were resolved, we take for granted our right to privacy, Miranda rights, and right to choose but there was a time that these could have gone the other way.

The authors have presented a wealth of material in a interesting and informative way. you do not n
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Jeremy
Be warned, this is a thick book, both in sheer size and in content. But, if you enjoy reading books about the Supreme Court and have moved beyond lighter books like The Brethren, this could be your book.

The authors offer a very detailed look at Justice Brennan's life and how it effected his place in the Court. While it does talk of his personal life, the driving narrative is through his work on the Court. It is not strictly chronological and I found that to be confusing at times. Each chapter co
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zltg
Too much distracting life trivia and gossip, and too little judicial analysis and case history. "But I saw a young girl and she had the walk of a queen." -- Yeats
B
Aug 21, 2013 B rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: own, westend
Somehow it works. It does not get too deep into Justice Brennan's character or his politics or even the eras in which he served. But it has enough cute anecdotes and interesting nuggets—surprisingly those I have not seen elsewhere—to keep it going. Interestingly, Brennan and Brennan's clerks appear to have supplied a lot of material.

Ultimately not incredibly incisive and turns surprisingly negative about Brennan near the end, but better than the average Supreme Court biography.
Candace Rollins
I really did not know a lot about Brennan and the court during his tenure, as for most of it I was quite young. I marveled at the amount of change that this court and particularly this man helped institute that in today's world we take for granted. From Brown to Miranda to Roe, these cases and hundreds more shaped the nation and our collective souls, legalizing empathy, dignity and justice for all.
Justin
Seth Stern does an unbelievable job of pulling together numerous sources to paint a picture of the most influential United States Supreme Court Justice of the Twentieth Century. Personal life, jurisprudence, and the inner workings of the Court are all examined. A fantastic read for any lawyer, Constitutional law student, or devotee of recent American history.
Stuart
Excellent and engaging biography with a focus, understandably, on his legal thinking and impact. The authors cover very thoroughly his interactions and relationships with the other justices. They provide good insight into the making and competing visions behind the critical work Brennan did in developing the liberal, "activist" Supreme Court era.
Mark Prak
Excellent bio. Bill Brennan was a complex guy. He's on my heroes list. The insight on his misplaying his cards with Sandra Day and Kennedy was interesting. As was the fact that notwithstanding his championing equal rights for women, he didn't employ a female clerk until the hypocrisy factor was raised by some of his male former clerks.
Steve Cawelti
One of the most thorough works on a pivotal justice. Certainly the most influential Supreme Court Justice of the 20th century. No matter your politics, you'll appreciate this treatment of the last, best liberal champion.
Oliver Bateman
As thorough a judicial biography as any in existence, and one quite different from the rarefied treatments that Learned Hand and Benjamin Cardozo have received.
Jason
The first 1/2 of the book is an interesting biography of the individual. The second half feels like a mere recitation of his latter majority opinions and dissents.
Will
Fascinating portrait. You can learn as much about the inner workings of the Supreme Court from this book as you do about the life of the heroic justice.
Kin Pier
Excellent book on the inner workings of the US Supreme Court and the give-and-take that often goes into the opinions issued by this body.
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