Genial Giant

UPDATED 08/11/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/11/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

IN SUPREME COURT JUSTICE WILLIAM J. Brennan Jr., the extraordinary document known as the American Constitution had an extraordinary advocate. During his 34 years on the high court, Brennan earned a reputation as an unyielding yet genial warrior for it and for individual rights. "To strike another blow for freedom allows a man to walk a little taller and raise his head a little higher," he wrote last year. "And while he can, he must."

Upon his death on July 24, at age 91, at a nursing home in Arlington, Va., Brennan left a legacy of judicial activism that, even his ideological opponents concede, qualified him as one of the most influential—and beguiling—justices in U.S. history. As Justice Antonin Scalia, a staunch conservative, once put it, "Even those who disagree with him the most love him."

Brennan's drive, as well as his compassion for the downtrodden, grew out of his own history. The son of Irish immigrant parents, he was born, the second of eight children, in Newark, N.J. His father, William ST., was a laborer at a local brewery who rose to become a union leader. "Everything I am, I am because of my father," Brennan once told an interviewer. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Law School, he went into private practice, then served as a jurist in New Jersey until President Eisenhower appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1956. (Shortly after his first wife and mother of his three children, Marjorie, died of cancer in 1982, Brennan married Mary Fowler, his longtime court secretary.)

During his lengthy tenure (only five other justices served longer), Brennan put his stamp on such landmark rulings as the doctrine of one person, one vote and the prohibition of prayer in public schools. "He always spoke out for the little guy," says Sen. Edward Kennedy. "Because of Justice Brennan they have more freedom in their lives." A forceful thinker and a wily behind-the-scenes negotiator, Brennan never lost his perspective. "He was a really humble person. It wasn't put-on at all," says Joe Guerra, a former law clerk to Brennan and now a Washington-based attorney. "He just had this deep interest in people."

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