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Brennan was giant of high court; dies at 91

By Richard CarelliAssociated Press Writer Published: July 25, 1997 12:00 AM

The retired Supreme Court justice died Thursday, at age 91, seven years

after leaving the court because of ill health.

Before ending his 34-year high court tenure in 1990, Brennan had written

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more than 1,200 opinions. He was considered the primary architect of the

individual-rights revolution in the law through the 1960s.

His body will lie in repose in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court Monday.

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Following a funeral Tuesday in St. Matthew's Cathedral, he will be buried

in Arlington National Cemetery.

Legal scholars called him the most influential judge of the 20th century,

praise that might make some men pompous. But the diminutive justice's humility

made admirers of even his ideological opponents.

Virginia Seitz, once a law clerk for Brennan, remembers the "very

conservative law clerks of one very conservative justice" taking her

boss to lunch even though they considered him at the time their archenemy.

"I asked one of them, upon his return, how it had gone," she

said. "He paused and then said, a bit defensively, 'Well, if everyone

were as wonderful as Justice Brennan his legal philosophy would work."'

That philosophy placed great emphasis on human autonomy and dignity,

and keeping government subservient to the people.

President Clinton called Brennan a remarkable human being whose "devotion

to the Bill of Rights inspired millions of Americans, and countless young

law students, including myself."

Brennan, a New Jersey native who graduated from Harvard Law School in

1931, once said that judges need more than logic. They need to be "sensitive

to the balance of reason and passion that mark a given age, and the ways

in which that balance leaves its mark on the everyday exchanges between

government and citizen."

Criticized as an activist and praised as a hero, he remained unaffected

by such assessments.

Even when the high court's growing conservatism recast him in a role

of dissenter, Brennan relished his life on the bench. "Nothing possibly

could be as satisfying," he said about his judicial career in an interview

with The Associated Press three months before he retired.

The Supreme Court is a collegial institution, and Brennan possessed the

political skills to make American law reflect his vision of the Constitution.

As a means of sharing his political prowess, Brennan often stumped new

law clerks by asking them to name the single most important element of constitutional


After they had recited various provisions and phrases in vain, Brennan

would smile and hold up his opened hand. "It takes five votes to get

anything done around here," he always told them.

Although he protested loudly when credited with successfully wooing other

justices to his views, more than one former colleague conceded in private

that a friendly chat with Brennan or a cajoling memo from him might have

influenced their perception of a particular key case.

Justice David H. Souter, who replaced Brennan, remembers their first


"I was not what might be called a Brennan liberal," he told

a Harvard Club of Washington gathering in 1992. "I did not know what

kind of reception I would get from him.

"Justice Brennan just threw his arms around me and he hugged me,

and he hugged me, and he went on hugging me for a very, very long time,"

Souter recalled.

Tears welled in Souter's eyes as he continued: "Quite simply, Justice

Brennan is a man who loves. The Brennan mind, which held a share of the

judicial power of the United States, has met its match in the Brennan heart

... . And in their perfect match lies the secret of the greatness of our


Brennan loved the court, but he loved the Constitution even more.

"Our entire Constitution is a national treasure," he once wrote,

"a document of heady ideals and eloquent, elegant language, a political

landmark for individual rights."

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