Frank I. Michelman

89 Texas L. Rev. 1409

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Stern and Wermiel, writes Professor Michelman, claim that Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion is a tale of surprise.  Not only did Brennan’s service on the U.S. Supreme Court turn out liberal, but it also turned out to be historically momentous, as Brennan became arguably the most influential justice of the entire twentieth century, not to mention the most forceful and effective liberal ever to serve on the Court.

Michelman looks closely at these claims.  He notes that Holmes and Brandeis may challene Brennan as the most influential justice of the twentieth century. Michelman also questions the second claim, wondering whether Brandeis, Frankfurter, Warren, Black, Douglas, or Marshall might have better claims to being the champion liberal justice in the Court’s history.

Michelman makes note of the celebratory tone of the book regarding Brennan’s liberalism, which never expresses doubt about Brennan’s liberal cause.  But Michelman is unsure exactly how Brennan’s liberalism should be classified.  While the book provides a profile of it in the form of data points, Michelman writes that it is left to the reader “to connect the dots as liberalism.”  He argues that Brennan is not a classical or pragmatist liberal, as Brennan was “a stout defender of the uses of reverse race-based discrimination, of the state’s power to impair undoubtedly lawful property holdings for non-urgent reasons, of ‘welfare’ at taxpayer expense.” He also acknowledges that the authors are not writing as general historians but instead might be identifying Brennan as a liberal within the contemporary political polemical meaning of the word.  But he does not think this is quite right either.

Instead, Michelman argues that the best fit is “‘liberal’ in a sense akin to what Rawlsian political philosophy has in mind.”  He thinks this is what the Stern and Wermiel meant by the word, even if they didn’t intentionally say so.  The egalitarian views of the Rawlsian group liberals with which Brennan should be identified, writes Michelman, come “from the political–philosophical ideas of Immanuel Kant.”  He then details how Brennan’s judicial views align with this group of liberal thinkers.  Michelman finds it somewhat surprising that the authors have such a historically recent philosophical turn on the term “liberal.”