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The Cutting Edge

Believing in the Goodness of People

In the latest issue of the Texas Law Review (89), Dean Larry Kramer joined   Judge Marsha Berzon, Frank Michelman, and several legal scholars in a “Book Review Symposium” for which each contributed a review of Justice Brennan:Liberal Champion by Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel. Here is an excerpt from Kramer’s article Believing in the Goodness of People:

Judicial biography is a punishing genre. Anyone brave or foolish enough to venture on to this territory starts with a big disadvantage, namely, that it’s exceedingly difficult to make what judges do seem exciting. judicial biographies make unlikely page-turners is hardly a surprise. The substance of a judicial life—at least of judges whose work on the bench merits serious biography—is inevitably dominated by the cases the judge decided. Yet even the hardiest, most avid consumer of law will begin to nod sleepily if asked to spend hours on end reading about lawsuits. * Unfortunately, Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel were unable to surmount the inherent limitations of the genre in their biography of Justice William J. Brennan. I don’t mean this as harshly as it may sound. After all, Stern and Wermiel had to work with some serious constraints, including that Justice Brennan’s life before he went on the bench wasn’t particularly interesting, that the Justice involved himself in almost nothing off-the-bench, and—most problematic for the authors—that Brennan was extremely withholding and reserved in and about his personal life. Stern and Wermiel note this last quality at numerous points in the book,but it bears underscoring.Bill Brennan was a delightfully friendly and gregarious person. No one who met him disliked him, no matter how much they might have disagreed with his views. He was effusively warm, and people came away from conversations feeling as if they had a new, caring friend. It was only later that one realized the extent to which the Justice’s effusiveness was itself a form of reserve, a wall behind which he hid, and that he had revealed little about himself or his own feelings.

Larry Kramer, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School, served as a clerk to Justice Brennan during the October Term, 1985.
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