William Joseph Brennan, Jr., American judge, is named an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States through a recess appointment by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on October 15, 1956, shortly before the 1956 presidential election. He serves from 1956 until July 20, 1990. As the seventh longest-serving justice in Supreme Court history, he is known for being a leader of the Court’s liberal wing.
Brennan is born in Newark, New Jersey to Irish immigrants, originally from County Roscommon, on April 25, 1906. He attends public schools in Newark, graduating from Barringer High School in 1924. He then attends the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduates cum laude with a degree in economics in 1928. He graduates from Harvard Law School near the top of his class in 1931 and is a member of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.
Brennan enters private practice in New Jersey and serves in the United States Army during World War II. He is appointed to the Supreme Court of New Jersey in 1951. After his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court by Eisenhower in 1956, he wins Senate confirmation the following year.
On the Supreme Court, Brennan is known for his outspoken progressive views, including opposition to the death penalty and support for abortion rights. He authors several landmark case opinions, including Baker v. Carr, establishing the “one person, one vote” principle, and New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which requires “actual malice” in libel suits brought by public officials. Due to his ability to shape a wide variety of opinions and “bargain” for votes in many cases, he is considered to be among the Court’s most influential members. Justice Antonin Scalia calls Brennan “probably the most influential Justice of the [20th] century.”
Brennan holds the post on the Court until his retirement on July 20, 1990 after suffering a stroke. He is succeeded by Justice David Souter. Brennan then teaches at Georgetown University Law Center until 1994. He dies in Arlington County, Virginia on July 24, 1997 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
With 1,360 opinions, he is second only to William O. Douglas in number of opinions written while a Supreme Court justice. On November 30, 1993, President Bill Clinton presents Brennan with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.