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Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion Hardcover – October 4, 2010

4.3 out of 5 stars 44 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Congressional Quarterly reporter Stern and Wermiel, who teaches constitutional law at American University, have produced what will likely be the definitive biography of Supreme Court Justice William Brennan (1906–1997), arguably the most influential liberal justice in history. During 34 years on the court, he was instrumental in forming alliances with other justices resulting in majority opinions in such seminal cases as Roe v. Wade and Baker v. Carr (the one man–one vote case that changed America's political landscape). 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. 16 pages of b&w photos.
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Review

"The authors balance differing accounts of Brennan the jurist and the man, presenting an evenhanded portrait of the affable but stubborn Justice."
--Kirkus Reviews

"'Justice Brennan' provides the most comprehensive and well-organized look at the legendary liberal jurist to date. Stern and Wermiel dig below the popular cliche of Bill Brennan as the Constitution's Gene Kelly, all twinkling eyes and glad-to-see-ya Irish charm,” to reveal the complicated (and quite conservative) man beneath."
--The New York Times

"Those who want to understand the glory and the contradictions of a true progressive jurist should buy the first full-length biography, Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion, by Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel."
--The Atlantic Online

"Brennan made a huge mark on our Constitution, and Stern and Wermiel illuminate his legacy remarkably well."
--Christian Science Monitor

"The definitive [Brennan] biography...a detailed and fascinating account... Both legal scholars and general readers will be delighted with this well-written, superbly documented biography."
--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"This sweeping biography of one of the most influential justices ever to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States invites the reader to witness the details of William J. Brennan Jr.'s personal life, the darker moments, as well as those that shine. It seats the reader in Brennan's chambers to listen to his conversations and see the memoranda exchanged with other justices and his law clerks ... In sum, the biography is an intimate account of Brennan's life, especially his 34 years on the Court."
--Newark Star Ledger

"The book offers an intelligent and interesting account both of Brennan's decades on the Court and of the broader developments in American life that intertwined with the Court's work."
--Ed Whelan, National Review Online

"The book takes care to place decisions and opinions in the context of Brennan's personal history, judicial philosophy and larger societal factors. It's deliciously gossipy when discussing how certain justices voted and what their opinions were of each other, but that information's also vital when understanding how the court operated."
--Dan Herman, Pacific Northwest Inlander

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 688 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (October 4, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547149255
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547149257
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #185,249 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By MarkK VINE VOICE on September 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Few Supreme Court justices have had a greater -- and more controversial impact -- on American history than William J. Brennan. Attacked by his opponents as a judicial activist, the decisions he authored over a thirty-four-year career on the Court expanded the rights of Americans, including those of such disadvantaged groups as minorities, criminal defendants, and the poor. Two decades after his retirement, his jurisprudence endures in helping to define our understanding of American law in many areas. Yet until now, Brennan's life and career has never received the degree of biographical attention such contemporaries as Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall, and John Marshall Harlan have enjoyed. Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel go far towards rectifying this deficiency with this book, which offers a searching examination of Brennan's life and career.

There was little in Brennan's early years to suggest the impact his career would have on the country. The son of an Irish immigrant who had made a career in New Jersey politics, Brennan worked hard to obtain an education. Graduation from Harvard Law School led to a job with Newark's preeminent legal firm, followed by wartime service and appointment to the New Jersey state bench. Brennan's background (particularly his Roman Catholicism) and his work in court reform led to his nomination to the Supreme Court by President Eisenhower, where he soon emerged as one of the Court's most prominent liberals in an era characterized by landmark decisions that helped to transform the nation. Though many of these decisions generated a political backlash that shifted the Court to the right and halted further progress, Brennan succeeded in entrenching many of his earlier gains with later decisions that preserved his legacy as a justice.
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A superior Supreme Court biography manifests a number of key features: discussion of family and educational background; analysis of pre-Court positions, especially judgeships; careful attention to how the subject was selected and confirmed for the appointment; some discussion of how the Justice interacted with colleagues, including the dynamics of decision-making; analysis of the subject's judicial philosophy; and reasonably detailed discussion of some of the Justice's key decisions. By these measures, this the most recent of many biographies of Justice Brennan (1906-1997) is an important addition to the Supreme Court literature.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how it came about. Apparently after the appearance of "The Brethren" (1979). Brennan became concerned about his public image. In 1986, he met with Stephen Wermiel, then covering the Court for the "Wall Street Journal," and agreed to cooperate in developing a biography. On top of 60 recorded interviews, Wermiel was given access to Brennan's papers, including "term histories" compiled by his clerks recounting important cases with which the Justice had been involved. Co-author Seth Stern took over lead writing responsibilities after Wermiel became an American University law professor, and he conducted further interviews and reviewed additional written sources such as conference notes and other material. In my experience, it is very unusual for such cooperation to be forthcoming from a Justice; the downside is that what we get primarily is Brennan's take on things, although the authors are fairly even-handed in their assessments. In any regard, what we are interested in are Brennan's views of the Court during his service, and they certainly come through loud and clear here.
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This excellent biography provides fascinating detail of the formulation of some of the most significant cases of the 20th century. I've never read a judicial biography that has so much "inside baseball" - and it will be loved by Court junkies. But it's also a crisply written and compelling story of 20th century US politics, intellectual history, religion, and gender relations -- told through the life of a towering figure of American history. Anyone interested in 20th century US history will really enjoy this fine book.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel. Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Oct. 4, 2010. 653 + xiv p, 16 p bxw photos, notes, index.

Even conservatives who hated him admit that Justice William J. Brennan Jr. was an exceptionally effective Supreme Court Justice and that the decisions which he shepherded through to a majority vote on the Court still affect how justice is administered in the United States and the protections afforded to us under the civil liberties clauses in the Bill of Rights. In a thirty-four-year tenure on the Court (1956-90), he succeeded in broadening existing rights and creating new ones (especially under the "right to privacy", which he helped craft behind the scenes) for women, including access to abortion, minorities, homosexuals, the poor and the press. In the process, he became not only the most effective liberal justice to serve on the Supreme Court but also the most hated by his opponents. Indeed, the backlash we see now with the Court's "strict constructionists" can be seen in large part as a reaction to the image of an activist court championed by Brennan and his beloved Chief, Chief Justice Earl Warren.

This book was delayed so long in appearing -Brennan had granted Wermiel access to his papers but Wermeil put the unfinished notes aside in the late nineties--that other revelations -by Harry Blackmun, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, etc.--have partly superceded it. Nonetheless, this is the most deliberative and the fairest book yet to appear on Brennan and his achievement as a justice. It is especially valuable for the way it shows how Brennan built coalitions on the Court.
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