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 uncommon wisdom that transformed the landscape of America. If John Marshall was the chief architect of a powerful national government, then Brennan was the principal architect of the nation's system for protecting individual rights. Intellect alone could never have achieved so much, though Brennan's intellectual brilliance was indispensable. What animated him was passion and compassion, insight and empathy, and a vision of a Constitution of, by and for the people.
Brennan's warm, lovable personality--he had no hint of pretension and treated the court's janitors with as much respect as he did his fellow Justices--enabled him to build bridges across ideological chasms that produced not only landmark decisions but stepping-stones to future developments in every major area of law as well. Not every Brennan opinion will live forever, any more than he could. But the Brennan legacy is immortal.
--By Laurence H. Tribe, professor, Harvard Law School