Retired Justice William J. Brennan marked his 90th birthday living up to his reputation as the Supreme Court’s liberal lion, calling the death penalty “a barbaric and inhuman punishment that violates our Constitution.”
He wrote the words, but the voice was that of his son, Bill, reading Brennan’s speech as the frail former justice sat smiling in his wheelchair during the birthday party about 100 friends and colleagues threw at the nation’s highest court Saturday.
Brennan turned 90 last Thursday, and was compared to a famous predecessor, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who also reached that milestone.
“Like Justice Holmes before him, Justice Brennan has become a national treasure in his own lifetime,” said Washington attorney Daniel Rezneck, one of Brennan’s first law clerks.
Justice David Souter, who replaced Brennan on the bench, dispensed with the history lecture.
“I am here because when I got to the court, Bill Brennan welcomed me with a bear hug,” he said, gently hugging Brennan back as applause echoed in the usually solemn high court chamber.
Considered one of the 20th century’s most influential jurists, Brennan wrote 1,350 opinions before retiring in 1990 because of poor health.
His rulings led to the “one-person, one-vote” principle of political reapportionment and empowered everyday citizens to use the courts to fight city hall. He also gave news organizations First Amendment protections in libel lawsuits.
But “we do not yet have justice for all who do not partake in the abundance of American life,” Brennan said in Saturday’s speech.
The death penalty “more than any other (area) besmirches the constitutional vision of human dignity,” he said.
“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 the victim’s life.”
Brennan predicted the Supreme Court one day “will outlaw the death penalty. Permanently. I hope I will live to celebrate the day, but I am supremely confidant that the day will come.”
The Supreme Court banned the death penalty in 1972, but in 1976 allowed states to reinstate it.
About 3,000 inmates are on death row nationwide.
Brennan’s comments come just weeks after President Clinton signed into law unprecedented curbs on appeals by death-row inmates, including setting a one-year deadline for inmates to file certain types of federal appeals.
After Brennan, now-retired Justice Harry Blackmun was the last justice in the nine-member court to oppose capital punishment in all circumstances.
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