William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (April 25, 1906 – July 24, 1997) was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Known for his outspoken liberal views, including opposition to the death penalty and support for abortion rights, he was considered to be among the Court's most influential members.
Brennan attended public schools in Newark, New Jersey, graduating from Barringer High School. He then attended Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated with a degree in Economics in 1928. While at the University, he was a member of Delta Tau Delta Fraternity.
When he was 21, Brennan married Marjorie Leonard, whom he had met in high school. They eventually had three children: William, Nancy and Hugh. Brennan attended Harvard Law School, where he was a member of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau . He graduated in 1931 and entered private practice in his home state of New Jersey, where he practiced labor law at the firm of Pitney Hardin (which would later become Day Pitney). He entered the Army as a major in March 1942, and left as a Colonel in 1945. He did legal work for the ordnance division. In 1949, Brennan was appointed to the Superior Court (a Trial court) by Governor of New Jersey Alfred E. Driscoll. In 1951, Driscoll appointed him to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Brennan gained the attention of Eisenhower's attorney general and chief legal affairs adviser, Herbert Brownell, when Brennan had to give a speech at a conference (as a substitute for New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Vanderbilt). To Brownell, Brennan's speech seemed to suggest a marked conservatism, especially on criminal matters. Other factors playing into Brennan's appointment were his Catholicism, his status as a state court judge (no state judge had been appointed to the High Court since Cardozo in 1938), and Eisenhower's desire to appear bipartisan after his appointments of justices Earl Warren and John Harlan .
Brennan was confirmed by the United States Senate with only Senator Joseph McCarthy dissenting. He filled the seat vacated by Justice Sherman Minton. He held the post until his retirement on July 20, 1990 for health reasons; he was succeeded on the Court by Justice David Souter. Brennan then taught at Georgetown University Law Center until 1994. With 1,360 opinions, he is second only to William O. Douglas in number of opinions written while a Supreme Court justice.
In his penultimate and final terms on the Court, he wrote the controversial rulings for Texas v. Johnson and United States v. Eichman, respectively. In both cases, the Court held that the First Amendment protects flag desecration.
Brennan's wife Marjorie died in 1982. A few months later, in 1983, he married Mary Fowler, who had served as his secretary for 26 years. He was 77 years old. Brennan's colleagues learned of his second marriage via a short office memo stating, "Mary Fowler and I were married yesterday and we have gone to Bermuda."
In the 1980s, as the Reagan administration and the Rehnquist Court threatened to "roll back" the decisions of the Warren Court, Brennan became more vocal about his jurisprudential views. In a 1985 speech at Georgetown University, Brennan criticized Attorney General Edwin Meese's call for a "jurisprudence of original intention" as "arrogance cloaked as humility" and advocated reading the U.S. Constitution to protect rights of "human dignity."
Brennan was also less interested in stare decisis or the avoidance of "absolutist" positions where the death penalty was concerned. Brennan and Thurgood Marshall concluded in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was, in all circumstances, unconstitutional, and never accepted the legitimacy of Gregg v. Georgia, which ruled that the death penalty was constitutional four years later. Thereafter, Brennan or Marshall took turns, joined by the other, in issuing a dissent in every denial of certiorari in a capital case, and from every decision in a case which the court did take which failed to vacate a sentence of death. (See Woodward, The Brethren; Lazarus, Closed Chambers.)
Brennan also authored a dissent from the denial of certiorari in Glass v. Louisiana. In Glass, the Court chose not to hear a case that challenged the constitutionality of the use of the electric chair as a form of execution.
Th[e] evidence suggests that death by electrical current is extremely violent and inflicts pain and indignities far beyond the "mere extinguishment of life." Witnesses routinely report that, when the switch is thrown, the condemned prisoner "cringes," "leaps," and "fights the straps with amazing strength." "The hands turn red, then white, and the cords of the neck stand out like steel bands." The prisoner's limbs, fingers, toes, and face are severely contorted. The force of the electrical current is so powerful that the prisoner's eyeballs sometimes pop out and "rest on [his] cheeks." The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool.
Brennan concluded that electrocution is "nothing less than the contemporary technological equivalent of burning people at the stake.