Last modified on June 21, 2023, at 02:33

William Brennan

William Brennan
Former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
From: October 15, 1956 – July 20, 1990
Nominator Dwight Eisenhower
Predecessor Sherman Minton
Successor David Souter
Party Democrat
Spouse(s) Marjorie Leonard (died 1982)
Mary Fowler
Religion Roman Catholic

William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (April 25, 1906 – July 24, 1997) was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Serving from October 16, 1956 - July 20, 1990, he was known for his liberal opinions, which reportedly included the per curiam opinion in Cooper v. Aaron that established judicial supremacy.

Early life

Brennan was born in Newark, New Jersey, on April 25, 1906.[1]


Justice Brennan filled a vacancy left by Sherman Minton, but more accurately filled an "Irish-Catholic" seat vacated by Frank Murphy in 1949. President Dwight Eisenhower, concerned about his reelection only about a month later, hoped to appeal to northeastern Democratic voters in picking Brennan.[2] Eisenhower viewed his nomination of Brennan, alongside his nomination of Earl Warren, as a mistake, confirming as much when in retirement in an interview with a reporter, where he mentioned in response to a question regarding if he made any mistakes while in office that he made two and that "[the mistakes] are both on the Supreme Court."[3]

In "Lemon v. Kurtzman" (1971), Brennan concluded that government subsidy of religious schools is an impermissible involvement of secular with religious institutions, thereby making it unconstitutional for Rhode Island to pay 15% of teachers' salary in parochial schools. American Catholic bishops said that this decision violated the right of parents to educate their children in parochial schools. Justice Brennan and the majority of the Court upheld the Lemon ruling in 1973 ("The Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist").

Justice Brennan wrote three of the most liberal court decisions in history:[4]

In addition, Justice Brennan was the "driving force" behind the writing of Roe v. Wade (1973). Brennan (not the insecure, less gifted Justice Harry Blackmun)—was the driving force behind the final version of Roe v. Wade, which Blackmun originally had planned as a cautious, narrow decision. Brennan, in spite of his holding to Roman Catholicism which specifically forbade abortions, was largely responsible for the expansion of the abortion regime outlined in Roe into a "fundamental" right to abortion on demand that was used to strike down parental consent and notification laws, viability testing, informed consent requirements and numerous other legislative restrictions on abortion.[6]


Judicial power resides in the authority to give meaning to the Constitution.[7]

Further reading

  • Eisler, Kim Isaac. A Justice for All: William J. Brennan, Jr. and the Decisions That Transformed America. (1993) 303 pp.
  • Rosenkranz, E. Joshua, and Bernard Schwartz. Reason and Passion: Justice Brennan's Enduring Influence (1997) excerpt and text search
  • Marion, David E. The Jurisprudence of Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. (1997)
  • Mills, Samuel A. "Parochiaid And The Abortion Decisions: Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. Versus the U.S. Catholic Hierarchy." Journal of Church and State 1992 34(4): 751-773; shows his opinion did not comply with the Catholic bishops [ in JSTOR]

Primary Sources

  • Brennan, William J., Jr. "State Constitutions and the Protection of Individual Rights," Harvard Law Review, Vol. 90, No. 3 (Jan., 1977), pp. 489–504 in JSTOR
  • Brennan, William J., Jr. The Conscience of the Court: Selected Opinions of Justice William J. Brennan Jr. on Freedom and Equality ed. by Stephen L. Sepinuck and Mary Pat Treuthart (1999)

See also


  1. Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren
  3. John Fund, "Miers Remorse: Conservatives are right to be skeptical," October 10, 2005; available online at:
  4. See Essay:25 Worst Court Decisions.
  5. This was officially issued per curiam, but authorship has been informally credited to Justice Brennan. [1]
  6. Brennan's law clerks included Roe and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton, in the bound volume of Justice Brennan's decisions of the term, along with a footnote stating: 'These cases are included with Justice Brennan's opinions for the October term 1972 because the opinions for the Court were substantially revised in response to suggestions made by Justice Brennan.' source
  7. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. - Speech given at the Text and Teaching Symposium, Georgetown University, PBS