Conflict Period:
World War II 1
Army 1
Colonel 1
25 Apr 1906 1
Newark, New Jersey 1
24 Jul 1997 1
Washington, D.C., USA 1

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Personal Details

Full Name:
William Joseph Brennan, Jr. 1
Also known as:
Justice Brennan 1
Full Name:
William J Brennan 2
25 Apr 1906 1
Newark, New Jersey 1
Male 1
25 Apr 1906 2
24 Jul 1997 1
Washington, D.C., USA 1
Cause: Natural Causes 1
24 Jul 1997 2
Last Residence: Arlington, VA 2
Mother: Agnes McDermott 1
Father: William Brennan 1
Mary Fowler, 1
1983 1
Spouse Death Date: 2000 1
Marjorie Leonard 1
1927 1
Spouse Death Date: 1982 1

World War II 1

Army 1
Colonel 1
"Sex, a great and mysterious motive force in human life, has indisputably been a subject of absorbing interest to mankin 1
Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court 1
Roman Catholic 1
Race or Ethnicity:
Irish 1
Employer: Supreme Court of New Jersey 1
Position: Justice 1
Start Date: 1951 1
End Date: 1956 1
Employer: United States Supreme Court 1
Position: Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States 1
Start Date: 15 Oct 1956 1
End Date: 20 Jul 1990 1
Employer: United States Army 1
Position: Colonel 1
Place: Washington DC 1
Start Date: 1942 1
End Date: 1945 1
Institution: Harvard Law School 1
Place: Cambridge MA 1
From: 1928 1
To: 1931 1
Institution: Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, 1
Place: Philadelphia PA 1
From: 1924 1
To: 1928 1
Social Security:
Card Issued: Unknown Code (PE) 2
Social Security Number: ***-**-4910 2

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Brennan: An 'American Hero'


Mourners pay their respects Monday as the former justice lay in state at the Supreme Court.
(By Dayna Smith — The Washington Post)

By Gabriel Escobar
Post Staff Writer
July 29, 1997; Page A06


The procession that filed around the flag-draped coffin of retired Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan had, by afternoon, included friends and relatives, union guys, troops of Boy Scouts, tourists in T-shirts, men and women in suits and a lot of devoted and anonymous disciples.

In the court’s Great Hall, where Brennan’s coffin was on display yesterday, this cross-section of Americans silently paid tribute to a man known to many as a champion of individual rights. The reasons for their attendance varied from the eminently practical—it was very hot and humid and the court is an air-conditioned tourist attraction—to the profoundly moving.

Justice Brennan, center, speaks with Justice Harry Blackmun, left, and Justice John Paul Stevens during a 1987 case about the authorship of Shakespeare's works. (AP File Photo)

"I am a woman. I am black. What more can I say?" said Tiffany Graham, 23, a paralegal at the Justice Department who will enter law school at the University of Virginia in the fall. Graham said Brennan’s forceful opinions on the rights of minorities, including women, had a direct and lasting influence on her life. "I wouldn’t have the advantages I have now," she said. "He was truly an American hero, and I came here to pay my respects, to say thank you."

Such high praise was common outside the Marble Palace—"his permanent memorial," as the Rev. Milton Jordan called the building during a brief private ceremony before Brennan’s family and friends.

Justice Brennan, right, shakes hands with President Eisenhower at the White House in 1956. Eisenhower had just selected Brennan to be a Supreme Court Justice. (AP File Photo)

Brennan, who was 90 when he died Thursday, believed the courts should try to right social wrongs, and his success in forging a consensus on divisive issues has had a profound effect.

People who did not know Brennan but knew his work cited specific cases that expanded civil liberties and freedom of the press, or they mentioned his adamant opposition to capital punishment.

Some, such as Jim Lyle, volunteered their own political party affiliation and philosophical bent, making it clear they saw Brennan as an unfailing liberal ally and one, perhaps, impossible to replace.

Lyle, a law student from Columbus, Ohio, said most people probably did not recognize the scope and reach of Brennan’s work. "These things affect you throughout your life, even though you don’t realize it," Lyle said of the justice’s opinions, particularly those that enhanced civil liberties. "The decisions that he made, the stances he took, the influences he had on the court, his ability to sway, to use arguments on other justices—all this I think was unique to the man."

President Clinton presents Justice Brennan with the Medal of Freedom in November, 1993, at the White House. (AP)

Funeral services for Brennan will be held today at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where Washington’s power brokers will pay public tribute before Brennan is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. By comparison, yesterday’s viewing was much more informal and democratic, drawing many from less-exalted positions in official Washington, people who knew Brennan’s work well from the inside.

There was Laura Millman, a special master with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, who said Brennan "stood for positions that would make this country great." And there was Rebecca Dickinson, a lawyer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who called Brennan a hero. "He was one of the greatest minds in the last 100 years," Dickinson said. "I don’t think people realize how much they owe to him."

No one ventured to say what Brennan would have said about the adulation. Born to Irish immigrants who settled in Newark—his father worked as a coal heaver in a brewery before finding success in America—William Joseph Brennan Jr. had the kind of upbringing that lots of people can identify with. He was one of eight children and, as a boy, earned pocket money by delivering milk, pumping gas and making change for passengers awaiting trolleys.

People like Joe Sweeny, a history teacher and union activist from Upstate New York, can relate to that. Standing on the court steps with his 8-year-old son, Robert, Sweeny called the immigrants’ son a "champion of individual rights, an impossible man to replace."

In 1956, Justice Brennan holds his 7-year-old daughter, Nancy, as his wife, Marjorie, holds his robe. (AP File Photo)

The coffin was brought in at 10 a.m., past 27 of Brennan’s former law clerks. Dozens of Boy Scouts visiting the Capitol stood across the street from the court, many at attention. By 4:30 p.m., 2,300 people had filed past the coffin.

Among them were Harry Lemmon, a justice on the Louisiana Supreme Court, and his wife, Mary Ann Lemmon, a federal judge in Louisiana. They met Brennan in France in 1988 and became friends. Yesterday, the Lemmons remembered a man who would literally reach out, gently grabbing you by the arm to make a point. "He was the kind of person that everyone felt was a close friend," Harry Lemmon said.

And then there was the assessment of Rachel Simon, 7, who did not know anything about Brennan until her parents, Ken and Sabrina Simon, took her and her two siblings to the viewing. Inside, Sabrina Simon—a lawyer, like her husband—knelt to whisper in her daughter’s ear. She told her "a great person had died and people were showing their respect."

The Simons, who are black, moved from the District to Birmingham. Ken Simon, a former White House fellow, said Birmingham and the South are different now from the way they were in the 1960s—for the better. The implication was that Brennan helped make that possible.

On the steps of the Supreme Court, defined once by Oliver Wendell Holmes as having "the quiet of a storm center," Rachel Simon said, "I think it was pretty bad for somebody who was really great to die."


"Retired Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, the liberal lion whose intellect and charisma made him one of the most influential jurists in America's history, died on July 24, 1997. He was 91.

The primary architect of the individual-rights revolution in the law through the 1960s, Brennan died at the Arlington, Va., nursing home where he had been recuperating from a broken hip suffered in November.

Ill health had forced him to retire from the nation's highest court July 20, 1990. He was nominated for the court by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.

Brennan was born in Newark on April 25, 1906, the second of the eight children of an Irish immigrant who started as a laborer but rose through the ranks to become an important labor leader and the city's commissioner of public safety.

During Brennan's 34-year tenure on the high court, he wrote more than 1,200 opinions. They shaped the landmark one-person, one-vote principle of political reapportionment, expanded protection against libel lawsuits, defined obscenity and broadened the rights of any person — including the poor, mentally handicapped or imprisoned — to battle the government in court.

In the high court's history, only William O. Douglas wrote more opinions.

President Clinton called Brennan a remarkable human being and said, "His devotion to the Bill of Rights inspired millions of Americans and countless young law students, including myself."

Chief Justice William Rehnquist said, "He played a major role in shaping American constitutional law. He was also a warm-hearted colleague."

Many conservatives called Brennan an ideologue and an activist. Most liberals called him a hero.

"The most outstanding justice of our century," said John Gibbons, a Seton Hall University law professor.

New York University law Prof. Burt Neuborne called Brennan the most influential Supreme Court member since John Marshall, the great chief justice of the early 1800s.

Brennan was a consistent supporter of abortion rights and of expanding the rights of individuals often forgotten by society — prison inmates, welfare recipients and the mentally handicapped, among others.

He was an outspoken opponent of the death penalty under all circumstances.

Brennan also played major roles in Supreme Court decisions that required busing to desegregate public schools, banned officially sponsored prayers and Bible readings from public schools and enhanced free-speech and free-press rights.

He also was an avid supporter of affirmative action to atone for discrimination against racial minorities and women."

Justice Brennan was laid to rest in Section 5 of Arlington National Cemetery, next to his wife Marjorie. He is also buried near Justices William O. Douglas, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.Potter Stewart and Thurgood Marshall.

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