Robert M O‘Neil
89 Texas L. Rev. 1417
In the opening of his review, Professor O’Neil states that “[a]ny lingering doubt [about the durability Justice Brennan’s legacy on the Supreme Court] has now been allayed by the publication of Stephen Wermiel’s and Seth Stern’s prodigious biography,” Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion.
O’Neil details how Brennan selected Wermiel to be his official biographer in the 1980s. Wermiel enjoyed great access to both the confidential papers and personal insights of Brennan. Wermiel also continued gathering material after Brennan’s retirement, joining the Justice and his former clerks for their annual dinner. In the 1990s, amid fear that the biography would not be published, Seth Stern joined Wermiel in the writing and researching to accelerate the process to its completion.
This extensive process helped correct some historical inaccuracies. For example, President Eisenhower was said to have expressed regret over his Supreme Court selections (Brennan and Warren), calling them his two mistakes, which he never actually did.
O’Neil also notes that “a striking value of the book is the authors’ capacity to distill areas of emphasis that transcend chronology.” One such area is Brennan’s role as a judicial colleague, which included his notable ability “to craft tenuous majorities for important civil rights and liberties.” Another important role for Brennan was that of mentor to his clerks.
O’Neil writes that the authors have been “realistic about the limitations of an ultimately imperfect ‘champion.’” They include coverage of a variety of challenges Brennan faces, such as his first wife’s illness as well as the family’s persistent penury. For details of family and collegial insights, the authors were forced to rely by necessity on “Nancy Brennan as the sole actively involved family survivor.” O’Neil adds a word of caution in this respect.
O’Neil lastly discusses the authors’ characterizations of the Justice, such as “liberal” and “First Amendment champion.” He notes that much has been written already about these issues, and concludes that “one should read Liberal Champion with full realization of the limitations and imperfections of its subject, but with no lesser measure of admiration both for the Justice and for the long-sought but most welcome biography.”