A Judicial Giant Who Never Forgot his Roots Nor the Common Man

History and Landscape
Published July 23, 1998

A Judicial Giant Who Never Forgot his Roots Nor the Common Man

| Published July 23, 1998

William J. Brennan Jr. in 1993, after his retirement. The Newark Public Library

William J. Brennan, who was born in Newark in 1906 and died last July 16 in Washington, D.C., is considered one of the greatest jurists in the long history of the United States Supreme Court.

Of the 109 justices who served on the court during Brennan's 34 years tenure, he was one of only eight Roman Catholics. According to a Star Ledger article, Brennan was, 'one of the most influential jurists in history…loved by his friends and colleagues for his warmth and Irish charm.' To many, he was the leading intellectual voice of liberalism and individual rights on the nation's highest court. While he was considered to be one of the court's most liberal members, only one person attacked him professionally: Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Brennan's parents were born in County Roscommon, Ireland, but never met until they arrived in Newark. William Sr. was introduced to his future wife, Agnes McDermott, at the boarding house of an aunt, Helen Butler of Plane Street (now University Avenue).Agnes was described as a saintly, hardworking and devoted wife – a woman with a good mind who was never at a loss for an opinion. William Sr. at first worked at the licorice factory on Bloomfield Avenue and the Morris Canal. Later, he was employed at the Ballantine Brewery, manning a huge brewery furnace. Soon, William Brennan Sr. became active in the local labor movement, ending up as a business agent for Local 55 of the Stationary Fireman and Oilers, AFL. In 1917, he decided to run for city commissioner. Of a field of 86 candidates, he came in third. He held that position until his death in 1930. As city commissioner, he was selected directory of public safety. His idea that 'police operations should be opened to public scrutiny' met with howls, but won out in the press and with the public. William J. Brennan Sr.'s professional life can best be summed up by taking note of his devotion to hard work, his respect for family life and its traditions, and his incredible honesty in municipal government. That's a pretty good legacy to pass along to a son. He was also known for his devotion to labor, working persons, and the rights of individuals, which he also passed along to William J. Brennan Jr. who continued to champion those causes for the rest of his life.

The Oldest of Eight

William Jr. was the oldest of eight children. He was born on April 25, 1906, in a home on New Street. His earliest memories of Newark were of the family home on Parker Street. Later the Brennans moved, as did many Irish-American Newarkers, 'up to Vailsburg' and then into the Oranges. He attended the Alexander Street School in Vailsburg and graduated from Barringer High School. To help out with family finances he pumped gas at a garage at Munn and South Orange avenues, fixed flat tires in a local tire center, and loaded milk cans before school during week days. Later in life, when asked what he remembered about his early days in town, he remarked that 'Newark was a very beautiful city in those days. The street we lived on, Parker Street, was just remarkable. It divided the people of means, with Park Avenue on one side. The big money was on the other side of Bloomfield Avenue. Of course, Newark is still a great city. It's a great center of law, with fine law firms and two great law schools. I have a very dear feeling toward Rutgers and Seton Hall law schools.'

After graduation from Barringer in 1928 he went on to Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, earning a B.S. cum laude in 1928. From there, he went to Harvard Law School, where he had a scholarship and studied under Professor Felix Frankfurter. He received his L.L.D in 1931, graduating in the top 10th of his class. Years later, he became a colleague of Justice Frankfurter on the nation's highest court. He was admitted to the New Jersey State Bar in 1932, and joined the firm of Pitney, Hardin, and Skinner, where his specialty became management-labor relations. In World War II, he was commissioned in the Army Ordnance Department as a major, and handled the labor problems for 50 to 75 munitions plants the government had built and owned. ''Our job was to keep production rolling and make certain the government was getting a fair return,' he said. He acted as a general government trouble-shooter, and was so successful that there were labor problems at only one of the locations. By the war's end, he had earned the Legion of Merit, and a promotion to full colonel. Following his return from service, and after re-entering the legal profession, William J. Brennan Jr. was faced with the decision of becoming a well-compensated lawyer or following the less lucrative but highly satisfying journey of jurist.

His Years on the Bench

Fortunately for us, he chose the latter. His reform work with the New Jersey state constitution and the overhaul of the New Jersey judicial system led to his appointment in 1949 to the state Superior Court and in 1952 to the New Jersey Supreme Court by Republican Governor Alfred Driscoll. When Arthur Vanderbilt was incapacitated in 1956, Brennan stepped in for him. U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell was extremely impressed by his abilities, and in September he was invited to talk to President Eisenhower about a position on the United States Supreme Court. Brennan's selection for that post was surprising in light of the fact that he was a Democratic liberal and Eisenhower a Republican. Some observers have suggested that Eisenhower was not so much interested in Brennan's constitutional views, but rather his need for a liberal, Northeastern Roman Catholic for his election bid. Nevertheless, Brennan was picked for the post and the Senate approved him on March 19, 1957, in spite of a two-hour grilling by a very unfriendly Sen. McCarthy, who questioned his loyalty and allegiance to the nation. Essentially, Justice Brennan championed the right of the individual over that of an institution with great feelings for the American laboring man and woman. But during his career he was always open to rethinking his earlier opinions. Sometimes, he surprised people when he stated that 'Labor is now a powerful giant, enjoying its strength and is inclined to play the bully…without regard to the common good.' Likewise, he reversed his view of loyalty oaths, and even once stated that he did not believe that strikes were all bad. Basically, Brennan held that the United States Constitution is our most precious document—one that should be constantly reinterpreted.

He felt that there are three purposes of the law. First to serve society in an Anglo-American concept of ordered liberty. Secondly, he felt the Supreme Court was responsible for keeping the balance in the federal system between the legislative and executive branches. Finally, he believed the Constitution is responsible for ensuring an open society. In defending individual rights, he also took the fight for society's most disenfranchised people—the prisoner, the welfare recipient, the institutional consignee, and the non-English speaking American. Famous decisions which he wrote included Fay vs. Noia, which gave criminal defendants access to the federal courts for constitutional claims, and Baker vs. Carr, which decided the principle of 'one-man, one vote' and which resulted in the reapportionment of congressional districts as well as state legislatures. Katzenbach vs. Morgan struck down an attempt to disenfranchise Puerto Rican voters for their inability to comprehend English, and the New York Times vs. Sullivan established guidelines in libel suits involving public officials. In addition, Brennan was outspoken concerning the use of illegal wiretaps. During his three and a half decades on the high court, he wrote 1,360 clear and concise opinions which 'quite literally changed the face of America.' By his actions, he upheld the role of the high court to 'rise above the passions of the moment and issue opinions that almost inevitably (were) unpopular with part of the population.' According to Father Robert Driman, Justice Brennan 'was an intellectual, a visionary, a prophet. He believed, like the author of the Code of Hammurabi, that the role of law is to protect the powerless from the powerful. His memory will be forever held in benefaction.'


In 1990, Justice Brennan retired, ending the second-longest service of a justice on the United States Supreme Court. In addition to the broad sweep of his influence on the nation's legal community, he made some practical contributions, including speeding up the judicial process by the elimination of court backlogs. He also acted as peacemaker and close associate of Chief Justice Earl Warren on the high court. In August 1994, he was awarded the American Bar Association's highest award, the Medal of Honor. Although he was unable to attend the award ceremony due to ill health, his son accepted it for him and said, 'This association's Medal of Honor means a great deal to my father, like he meant a great deal to America.' The ABA's president replied, 'William Brennan Jr. is a giant in our justice system. As a defender of individual rights he has left an indelible mark on the law.' In the years that have followed, friends, colleagues, and associates continued the chorus of praise for Brennan's work with statements such as, 'You are an inspiration to all of us. You have never lost faith in the ability of the law to make our country and our lives better, and you have never lost your faith in the power of reasoned exposition to bring our Constitution to life.' On his death in July 1997, Justice Brennan's body lay in state in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court Building in Washington. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery just a few feet from his colleague and friend, Thurgood Marshall. While his body was not returned to his home town for burial, this warm-hearted Irish-American judicial giant will always have a special alcove in Newark's own hall of history.