To describe William J. Brennan Jr. as one of the greatest Justices of all time is to put things too abstractly. Before Brennan, the Bill of Rights protected people mostly from the Federal Government but scarcely from states and cities. Government couldn't seize a mansion without a hearing, but it could repossess a car or kick someone off welfare without explaining why. Desegregation was required in principle but not in practice. Sex discrimination was legal. Officials could punish their critics. Religious practices could be penalized.

Through his 1,360 opinions, Justice Brennan changed all that, building an edifice of common sense and...

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