William Brennan, one of the great Supreme Court justices of the twentieth century, did not attract attention. A 1966 cover story on the Warren Court in the New York Times Magazine failed to mention him. He sat several rows behind President Johnson at Martin Luther King’s funeral, but his presence—unlike that of several of his flashier colleagues—went unremarked by the press. Once, he attended a bar association meeting in Pittsburgh and practically had to jump out of the way of lawyers seeking autographs from the actor who played Perry Mason on television. An article on the event in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that "Mr. Justice Brennan came unheralded. He left unfollowed."
Nonsense: every justice followed Brennan. If Johnson was master of the Senate, Brennan was king of the Court. Installed by President Eisenhower through a recess appointment, he served from 1956 to 1990. During the 1962–63 term at the height of the Warren years, he angled himself into the majority in nearly every case. He made a career of approaching his colleagues with a "Hiya, pal," taking their elbow and seeing what he could do to get them to join his opinion. You don’t like the section on damages? Consider it cut. You think Hugo Black and William Douglas (the two justices to the left of Brennan) are going too far? I’ll rein them in. There were frequently one or two justices—more on the Rehnquist Court—he failed to corral, but to those without dogmas fixed like bayonets he could be awfully persuasive. At the beginning of each term, he welcomed his new law clerks by opening his hand and showing them the most important thing they needed to know about the job: five fingers, a majority. With it, he told them, you can do anything around here.
The wildly inaccurate—and, to an extent, self-cultivated—view of Brennan as a cipher persisted until the publication of The Brethren (1979), by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, and Super Chief (1983), by Bernard Schwartz. The Brethren was a gossipy, melodramatic account of the Court based on interviews with law clerks and some justices. Brennan called it a "Goddamn shit sheet" and emphatically denied having fed information to the authors, although his clerks were less discreet. (Justices Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell and Potter Stewart secretly sat for interviews.) Super Chief was an academic biography of Earl Warren that, unbeknown to most, relied on Brennan’s "term histories"—informal write-ups of the details of each case, including who switched votes and who slung mud. Both books revealed that Brennan was something of a man behind the curtain. The reassessment continued in the 1980s, in law review articles and in an essay in The Nation by law professor Stephen Gillers, who argued of Brennan, "It is increasingly clear that he deserves much of the credit for fashioning the legal theories that could support the progressive decisions of the last quarter-century, and for then persuading a majority of his colleagues to accept them." Thirteen years after his death, Brennan is now widely regarded as a figure of tremendous consequence, not merely as a justice but as a key participant in the civil rights and women’s rights movements, and the criminal law revolution that helped bring Richard Nixon to power. Conservative jurists like Richard Posner and Antonin Scalia readily acknowledge his impact (Scalia called Brennan "probably the most influential justice of the century"). Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel, the authors of an indispensable new biography, Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion, call Brennan "the most forceful and effective liberal ever to serve on the Court."