Stephen Wermiel, official biographer of Justice Brennan, speaks at Elon Law
On October 28, Stephen Wermiel, coauthor of Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion, spoke with Elon Law students and faculty about his new book, which gives unprecedented access into the life of William J. Brennan, Jr., considered by many to be the most influential Supreme Court justice of the twentieth century. Click on the E-Cast link to the right of this article to listen to Wermeil's lecture on audio.
Wermiel was for twelve years the Wall Street Journal’s Supreme Court reporter. He now teaches at American University Washington College of Law, where he also received his law degree.
Justice Brennan was coauthored with Seth Stern, legal affairs reporter at Congressional Quarterly. The book has received high praise. A review by the Washington Post calls it “scrupulously honest and consistently fair-minded” and “perhaps the best judicial biography ever written.”
Before Brennan’s death in 1997, Wermiel conducted more than 60 hours of interviews with him over a period of six years. Furthermore, even though Brennan’s personal court materials will not be available to the public and other researchers until 2017, Wermiel was granted access to these historical documents and personal materials during his time with Brennan.
“Most of what goes on in Constitutional Law was framed by Justice Brennan’s opinion,” explained Wermiel. “He was on the Court for 34 years, and his impact on Constitutional Law today is extraordinary.”
Justice Brennan makes public for the first time the full contents of Brennan's case histories, in which he recorded the strategizing behind all the major battles of the past half century, including Roe v. Wade, affirmative action, the death penalty, obscenity law, and the constitutional right to privacy.
“I have always wanted to better understand the man I was named after and Professor Wermiel's unprecedented access into Justice Brennan's life really helped me get closer to that quest,” said second-year law student Brennan Aberle. “We all know Justice Brennan's reputation as a great dissenter, but we forget that it was his ability to craft over 1,200 majority opinions that caused Justice Antonin Scalia to label him, ‘probably the most influential justice of the century.’ His almost unparalleled ability to create consensus without conceding conviction almost seems foreign in a world today so bitterly divided by partisan politics.”
Wermiel believes that Brennan was persuasive and effective as a justice because of his lasting constitutional vision and also because Brennan had a “religious zeal” for figuring out how to maintain a majority vote.
“Brennan is legendary for being a great persuader who pulled miracles out of a hat by persuading other justices to join his opinion,” Wermiel said. “The truth is he really worked hard and was receptive to other justices and worked hard to find out what it would take to get their vote.”
Wermiel's talk at Elon Law was sponsored by the law school's Center for Engaged Learning in the Law.
By Danielle Appelman, L'12