William J. Brennan, Jr.

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The Constitution was framed fundamentally as a bulwark against governmental power, and preventing the arbitrary administration of punishment is a basic ideal of any society that purports to be governed by the rule of law.

William Joseph Brennan, Jr. was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1956 to 1990.

Sourced[edit]

  • Sex, a great and mysterious motive force in human life, has indisputably been a subject of absorbing interest to mankind through the ages.
  • We consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.
  • "If the right to privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted government intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or begat a child."
  • Our Nation has had a long and unfortunate history of sex discrimination, rationalized by an attitude of 'romantic paternalism' which, in practical effect, put women, not on a pedestal, but in a cage.
  • More fundamentally, however, the answer to petitioners' objection is that there can be no impairment of executive power, whether on the state or federal level, where actions pursuant to that power are impermissible under the Constitution. Where there is no power, there can be no impairment of power.
    • Writing for the court, Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 353 (1976).
  • The genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs.
    • Speech to the Text and Teaching Symposium at Georgetown University (October 12, 1985).
  • "The framers discerned fundamental principles.... But our acceptance of the fundamental principles has not and should not bind us to those precise, at times anachronistic, contours. We current justices read the Constitution in the only way that we can: as 20th-century Americans... The ultimate question must be, what do the words of the text mean in our time? For the genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs. What the constitutional fundamentals meant to the wisdom of other times cannot be their measure to the vision of our time. Similarly, what those fundamentals mean for us, our descendants will learn, cannot be their measure to the vision of their time.
    • Speech to the Text and Teaching Symposium at Georgetown University (October 12, 1985).
  • No doubt, there are those who believe that judges-and particularly dissenting judges-write to hear themselves say, as it were, I I I. And no doubt, there are also those who believe that judges are, like Joan Didion, primarily engaged in the writing of fiction. I cannot agree with either of those propositions.
    • In Defense of Dissents, 37 Hastings L. J. 427, 428 (1985-1986).
  • The Constitution was framed fundamentally as a bulwark against governmental power, and preventing the arbitrary administration of punishment is a basic ideal of any society that purports to be governed by the rule of law.
  • Yet the ultimate problem is more fundamental. I have long believed that the death penalty is in all circumstances a barbaric and inhuman punishment that violates our Constitution. Even the most vile murderer does not release the state from its constitutional obligation to respect human dignity, for the state does not honor the victim by emulating the murderer who took his life. The fatal infirmity of capital punishment is that it treats members of the human race as non-humans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded.
    • Writing in Reason and Passion: Justice Brennan's Enduring Influence (1997).
  • The machinery chugs on unabated, belching out its dehumanizing product. It is distressing. But I refuse to despair. I know, one day, the Supreme Court will outlaw the death penalty. Permanently.
    • Writing in Reason and Passion: Justice Brennan's Enduring Influence (1997).
  • If our free society is to endure, and I know it will, those who govern must recognize that the Framers of the Constitution limited their power in order to preserve human dignity and the air of freedom which is our proudest heritage.
    • Writing in Reason and Passion: Justice Brennan's Enduring Influence (1997).

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