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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 122

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This is the grave of William Brennan.

One of the key liberal jurists in Supreme Court history, Brennan was born in 1906 in Newark to Irish immigrants. His father did something extremely rare in the Irish-American community of that era–something so rare that only an Irishman becoming a cop or firefighter were more rare–he became heavily involved in the local Democratic political machine. Between 1927 and 1930, he served as the city’s Commissioner of Public Safety. William attended Penn and graduated in 1928, which is really impressive at that time for an immigrants’ kid. He went to Harvard Law and practiced labor law in New Jersey for several years. In 1942, he volunteered for the Army and was commissioned as a major, doing legal work for the ordinance divison. When he left in 1945, he was a colonel. He rose in the New Jersey court system rapidly after the war and was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 1951.

In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower had a Supreme Court appointment to make when the less than legendary Sherman Minton retired. He chose Brennan. Are you thinking, wait, the son of an Irish immigrant in the early 20th century became a Republican? No, of course not. But Eisenhower wanted to win European ethnic votes in northeastern states in the election that fall and thought naming an Irish Democrat would help with that goal. Such relatively prosaic and short-term considerations would be absolutely impossible to imagine in a Supreme Court appointment today. And I don’t think Eisenhower really needed these votes, assuming they even materialized, against Adlai Stevenson. But there it was–a Republican had named a Democrat to the Supreme Court. Part of the reason was that Eisenhower’s advisors believed Brennan was a conservative at heart, especially on criminal injustice issues. They were wrong. Brennan was easily confirmed. There was only one Republican who voted against him–a very nice man named Joe McCarthy, who was angry that Brennan had opposed his witch hunts.

Brennan became a leading liberal on the Court immediately and remained so for the rest of his very long career. He was a close confidant of Earl Warren, who assigned him to write several key decisions. Under the Burger court and then especially in the Rehnquist court, he became more isolated and allied with Thurgood Marshall in many cases where they were the only 2 dissenting votes. Not only was Eisenhower’s advisors wrong that he was a criminal justice conservative, Brennan became noted for his strong support for the rights of the accused and the convicted. He abhorred the death penalty and ruled with the majority in Furman v. Georgia. Of course he did the same in Roe and many other cases. At the end of his career, he was actively supporting the constitutional right for flag burning. He attacked the growing idea of “originalism,” which we all know is self-justifying bullshit for right-wing extremism, in harsh terms, calling Ed Meese’s articulation of this “arrogance cloaked in humility.” That might be the nicest thing anyone ever said about Meese, who is a toad and still pollutes us with his pronouncements today.

Brennan finally retired from the Court in 1990. He died in 1997.

William Brennan is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

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