Newark’s Justice: William J. Brennan Jr., The Newark History Society’s Panel Discussion

Since early June, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. (his new statue) has stood high in front of the historic Essex County Hall of Records, watching his native city and far beyond with an anxious expression. During his 34-year tenure in the U.S. Supreme Court, with his over 1,300 legal opinions, Justice Brennan literarily touched all aspects of every American’s life. However, 13 years after his death, American democracy and its fundamental values, such as church-and-state separation, and even the First Amendment itself, seem to face a serious challenge. With questions of the Constitution framers’ intentions during the “Tea Party” insurgence, Justice Brennan’s legal genius and his passion for human dignity are more needed than ever before. With these thoughts in her mind, Linda Epps, the Director of the New Jersey Historical Society, opened the discussion on Justice Brennan on the evening of October 20.
Brendan O’Flaherty, an economics professor at Columbia University, a Newark connoisseur, and “the only person alive who has read through the 1929 Newark city budget,” organized the discussion with a question to all panelists: “What would Justice Brennan have been without Newark?”

Facing a crowded Newark audience, Seth Stern, an author of the long-awaited biography, Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion, started his presentation apologetically for devoting “only” 40 pages about Brennan’s Newark experience in this huge volume of almost 700 pages. He said, “We have to get Brennan quickly to the U.S. Supreme Court,” the institution that became his life. A talented storyteller with an admirable ability for even distant details, Stern traced Brennan Sr.’s ascendance from a penniless Irish immigrant in1893 to an almost legendary figure at his sudden death in 1930. Tens of thousands of Newarkers rushed to join his funeral precession from City Hall to St. Patrick’s Cathedral while three New Jersey National Guard airplanes dropping white flowers along the cortege. However, the humble family experience had a deep imprint on young Brennan and his firm commitment towards justice and human dignity, particularly for the deprived, humiliated, and voiceless underdogs.

Seton Hall law Professor Edward Hartnett observed Brennan’s deep distrust of elected political power, which he developed during his youth seeing his father brutally attacked. In his book, Stern also described young Brennan’s most fearful moments when his father drank alone, frustrated and disturbed by local politics. Hartnett pointed out that, in contrast, since becoming a state judge after the 1947 State Constitution Convention overhauled the backward judicial system, Brennan Jr. had never wavered in his faith in the judicial power to create a more humane society. Hartnett sited case after case among Brennan’s numerous legal decisions where he extended justice through a living Constitution.

A walking encyclopedia of Essex County politics, Assemblyman Tomas Giblin is a long-time president of Local 68 Operating Engineers, the Brennan Sr.’s union in the 1910’s. During the hardest days in the Great Depression, Giblin’s father got a one-day-a-week job from Commissioner Brennan. Thirty years later, Justice Brennan’s Baker v. Carr decision paved Giblin Senior’s path to another job, this time in the State Legislature. To Giblin, the Brennan family’s support to young Irish immigrants is legendary.

The Brennan family’s Irish connection, however, often led to the ethnic stereotype that Georgianna Brennan deeply resents. Justice Brennan, Geogianna’s father-in-law, was always dear “Pop,” not a mischievously smiling Leprechaun with short arms around his colleagues, as caricatured by authors like Bob Woodward. She recalled the hardworking old man baby-sitting grandchildren on a Christmas morning while writing legal opinions on a yellow pad next to the kitchen table. She testified what Seth Stern described all through his 700-page book – the heroic but quiet sacrifices that Brennan made, together with his wife Marjorie and their children, for the justice of all. Having reached the pinnacle of his legal career, Justice Brennan was far from a wealthy man, but often resorted to borrowing money from friends for his children’s education. Shortly before her death, Marjorie overcame her cancer pain and showed up for the last time in Justice Brennan’s Supreme Court chamber to observe his questioning. Georgianna Brennan is particularly proud of her Newark roots, “I am a Newarker because I was born, married, and worked in Newark.” What she did not mention is that her own father Pearce Franklin, an able attorney, served as a Newark City Commissioner between the 1930’s and the 1950’s, even longer than Brennan Sr.

The evening’s audience seemed to enthusiastically embrace the Brennan’s, particularly William J. Brennan Sr., as their own. I remember reading a 1928 New York Times report about 100,000 children attending a Brennan “family picnic” in Dreamland Park, which blocked the Lincoln Highway traffic for hours. Today, with the Newark Public Library facing extensive service cuts and Brennan’s Barringer High School falling into chaos, it is hard to imagine that political leaders like Commissioner Brennan could command such affection from ordinary citizens. Justice Brennan said in 1986, “Everything I am, I am because of my father.” For today’s Newarkers and Americans whose lives have been deeply touched by Brennan’s monumental legal works, we may be tempted to say, “Everything we are, we are because of Justice Brennan.”