William Brennan was one of the longest-serving Supreme Court Justices to ever sit on the bench. Nominated by Dwight Eisenhower in late 1956, he served with distinction for almost 35 years until retiring in 1990. Although considered one of the most influential Justices of the 20th century, his story begins much earlier. Born in the last days of April in 1906, he was the second of eight children of William and Agnes Brennan, both devout Catholics. Both had immigrated from Ireland several years prior. Graduating from high school in 1924, he attended the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he flourished, graduating cum laude in 1928 with a degree in economics. Following this, he enrolled in and successfully acquired a law degree from Harvard in 1931. During his stint in higher education, he married his high school sweetheart Marjorie and eventually had three children with her.
For the next decade, he practiced law in New Jersey, establishing himself as a capable and competent lawyer. At the outset of America’s involvement in World War II, Brennan entered the Army at the rank of major. He worked as legal counsel and aide for the ordnance division. He was eventually honorably discharged in 1945, having achieved the rank of colonel. He was also awarded the Legion of Merit for his service. Several years later, after returning to private practice, he was appointed to the Superior Court of New Jersey by then governor, Alfred Driscoll. He was a part of that trial court for two years when Brennan was then appointed to the Supreme Court of New Jersey. After serving with some distinction and making a name for himself for half a decade, he was appointed for a Justiceship position by President Dwight Eisenhower. His appointment was widely seen as a truly bipartisan choice and proved to be beneficial for Eisenhower as well. Another reason he could have been appointed was the fact that no state judge had been appointed to the Supreme Court since the confirmation of Benjamin Cardozo in 1932.
His confirmation process, however, was not without its share of controversy. Two points of contention were brought before the confirmation committee. The first was his active practice and participation in the Roman Catholic church. There was much fervor and claims made that he might not follow the letter of the law but rather church doctrine in making decisions. The other angle was his public calls for a softening of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his anti-Communist crusade. Brennan went so far as to publicly speak out against McCarthy’s tactics and say they had overreached. However, Brennan was able to eloquently defend both his positions in front of the confirmation committee and won the appointment with a near unanimous confirmation. Perhaps not surprisingly, the lone holdout was Senator Joseph McCarthy.
This would begin what is widely considered one of the greatest impacts Brennan had on the United States as a whole.
Brennan sat on the bench during three very different, unique and changing Supreme Courts. His first Chief Justice was Earl Warren. He quickly developed a friendship with Warren and was jokingly referred to as the “deputy chief.” Brennan acquired this nickname because as time went on in the Warren Court, Warren himself would call on Brennan to write the majority opinions and court decisions. Since Brennan was much more liberal than several colleagues, his views never really clashed with Warren. So Brennan used that to his advantage and helped persuade other more conservative members of the Court to change their votes. He helped shape many influential decisions on the Warren Court, especially expanding individual rights tremendously. Most notably during his time in the Warren Court is the 1964 decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. This decision helped set restrictions on some of the libel laws we have on the books even to this day.
The second Chief Justice he served under was Warren Burger. At this point the court started a transition to much more conservative principles and ideals. This caused Brennan to take a much more vocal and active approach in his deciding. He was no longer content to just sit in the background and persuade behind closed doors, and this marked shift for Brennan would see him through the rest of his days on the court. During the Burger bench, one of the most controversial rulings to come out of the court would be handed down. Roe v. Wade had a major impact on national discourse and political activism. Brennan voted with the majority in the decision and, even though a devout Catholic, determined that the Constitution was superior. He was a big proponent of the separation of church and state, often proposing that while everyone had a right to practice whatever they wished, however they wished, the government had no right dictating to the people how to do so.
Following the Burger court would see what would probably be described as the most conservative judge to ever sit as Chief Justice. William Rehnquist and Brennan would constantly but heads, but as time went on, Brennan would find himself less and less able to form a majority. By 1975, he and Justice Thurgood Marshall were the only liberal voices left on the bench. For the last 15 years he sat on the bench, Brennan found himself almost exclusively in the minority and opposed to almost every case brought forth, most especially the death penalty. In fact, for every case involving the death penalty for more than 20 years, he was a staunch opponent and always voted against it, saying it violated the Eighth Amendment. In his final terms with the Court, he wrote several controversial rulings that upheld the First Amendment right to allow the United States flag to be desecrated.
His high school sweetheart passed away in 1982, and several months later in 1983, he married his secretary, Mary Fowler. She had served him as a secretary for more than a quarter of a century. Most of his colleagues were surprised to find out he remarried, only learning because of a memo he left telling them of a vacation to Bermuda.
While he sat on the bench for nearly 35 years, he suffered a stroke in 1990 that caused him to resign and go into academia. He taught several classes at Georgetown before ultimately retiring in 1994.
Perhaps most well known for his staunch support of the Bill of Rights and favor of individual rights, he remains one of the most well-respected and well-regarded Justices of the 20th century.
Supreme Court Justice Biography William O. Douglas
Supreme Court Justice Biography William O. Douglas
William O. Douglas was born in Maine, Minnesota, on October 16, 1898, to a Presbyterian minister who passed away when he was just six years old. William claims to have contracted polio at an early age, but many historians question this claim.
After his father’s death, his mother moved the family to Yakima, Washington. Following his high school graduation as valedictorian, he went on to attend Whitman College. When he graduated, he taught school in the Yakima school district for two years while he scraped together enough money to move east to study law. He finally found a job tending sheep for free fare on a train bound for New York City where he attended Columbia Law School. During his lifetime, he suggested that he slept outside in a tent part of his time at Columbia, but there is no independent evidence to support this fact. He also claims that he graduated second in his class, but subsequent researchers suggest that he finished fifth.
During his time as a student at Columbia, he married Mildred Riddle who soon bore him a son and a daughter. Although both children ended up being very successful, they describe their father as being cold and distant. They also say that he treated Mildred very badly.
Legal Realism Theory
Following graduation, he worked at one of the most prestigious law firms in New York City for about four months before growing restless. In 1927, he joined the faculty of Columbia Law School. In 1928, William went to work as a law professor at Yale Law School. While teaching at Yale, he met Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and he was inspired by their legal realism theories. He was an outspoken critic of the New Deal, saying the plan did not go far enough to protect investors.
Appointment to Securities and Exchange Commission
During his stint at Yale, he represented many important business clients who were filing for bankruptcy because of the Great Depression. After initially being brought into the Securities and Exchange Commission to work with businesses, Douglas rose through the ranks, impressing everyone with his brilliant legal mind until he got the attention of President Roosevelt, who appointed him to head the Securities and Exchange Commission in the summer of 1933 as part of Roosevelt’s First Hundred Days program.
Appointment to Supreme Court
Douglas held this position until 1939 when President Roosevelt surprised everyone by appointing Douglas to the United States Supreme Court. He was quickly approved by the United States Congress, joining the court in April.
He quickly developed a reputation for working very hard. During his time on the court, he was one of the most prolific writers of opinions. Many, however, have cited that these opinions were based on his belief that individual rights were more important than anything else written from the bench in under 20 minutes. They were often filled with grammar and spelling errors.
Griswold V. Connecticut
Many believe that Douglas would be largely forgotten if it had not been for Griswold v. Connecticut, where the United States Supreme Court ruled that the state could not make it illegal to use contraceptives when married because it violated an individual’s rights to privacy in their marriage. This landmark court case paved the way for the United States Supreme Court to rule that unmarried couples also had the right to decide to use birth control. It ultimately led the way to Roe v. Wade.
Possible Vice President
In 1944, he was briefly considered as the vice presidential running mate of President Roosevelt. The president wrote a letter to the nominating committee saying that he would be happy with either William Douglas or Harry Truman. The committee decided to nominate Truman who became president after Roosevelt’s death. Historians record that this exchange left Douglas very bitter and that he never took his work on the bench seriously again.
Douglas also authored over 30 books. He is best known for authoring of Mice and Mountains, which championed environmental causes. In this book, published in 1967, he calls for the creation of an Office of Conservation at both the state and federal levels. He says that dams should not be constructed as they drain wetlands, and he called for grazing practices to be regulated. He also made an argument for mines to be highly regulated. Throughout much of his book, he draws on his experience growing up in the West.
One of the most important cases that Douglas ruled on while on the bench was granting a temporary stay of execution to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for selling the plans to the atomic weapon to Russia. The case hinged around rather they could be executed without the consent of a jury. The United States Supreme Court was in recess when the case came before them, but Chief Justice Vinson quickly reconvened the court. The majority found that the judge was within his rights to order the couple killed.
First Impeachment Attempt
Douglas who had hastily returned from vacation wrote that he did not agree with the majority. United States Representative William M. Wheeler tried to have Douglas impeached for his grounds, but the United States Congress Judiciary Committee quickly threw out the case.
After being married to Mildred for more than 31 years, the couple got a divorce when Douglas fell in love with a young student who he brought into the United States Supreme Court as an intern. He married Mercedes Hester in 1954. He dumped her in 1963 to marry Joan Martin. That marriage only lasted three years before he met and fell in love with Cathleen Heffernan.
Second Impeachment Attempt
Faced with mounting expenses from his divorces, Douglas kept a busy speaking schedule. While in the United States House of Representatives, Gerald Ford tried to have him impeached for lewd behavior. The hearing lasted for several days with Douglas ultimately prevailing.
Retirement and Death
In 1974, Douglas suffered a stroke that left side paralyzed forcing him to use a wheelchair. He finally retired from the bench in 1976, but he refused to leave the building. Many believe that he suffered from anosognosia causing him acknowledge disease in himself. He died on January 19, 1980, and he is interred at Arlington National Cemetery.