In a traditional Catholic ceremony at Washington’s majestic St. Matthew’s Cathedral, the late Justice William J. Brennan Jr. was remembered in eulogies Tuesday that captured his vast liberal legacy, trademark compassion and enduring good humor.
The two-hour funeral service, attended by President Clinton, five of the nine current Supreme Court justices and many leaders of the liberal guard, past and present, also served as a vivid reminder of the era that Brennan personified, a bygone one in which judges reached out to expand individual rights and helped bring about a social revolution in America.
“It is true, the life of the man is over; so is the liberal era when Justice Brennan’s voice was the voice of the Supreme Court,” Justice David H. Souter, Brennan’s successor and close friend said, during a speech in the domed cathedral in downtown Washington. “But the law as he saw it will transcend his own time. . … He has left so much to be dealt with.”
Brennan, who served a third of a century on the high court, from 1956 to 1990, died last Thursday at age 91. Appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Brennan’s tenure spanned eight presidencies and he was a colleague to one fifth of all the justices who have ever served on the court. He left behind more than 1,300 opinions.
Tuesday’s service, which began with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” was more celebration than sorrow for the man who once had told his priest and longtime friend, Milton E. Jordan, “Don’t let it become too depressing. Remember, I’m Irish.” The Rev. Jordan, of Germantown, Md., was the principal celebrant Tuesday before the standing-room-only crowd of about 1,100.
The occasion brought out titans of the Democratic party and Washington’s liberal elite, some identified more with the progressive heyday of the Brennan tenure than the more moderated left of today. Sitting in wooden pews were Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. Former National Urban League president Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and civil rights leader and former Transportation Secretary William T. Coleman Jr. also paid their respects.
Among the Republican lawmakers present was Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Moments before the ceremony began, Clinton accompanied Brennan’s widow, Mary, to a pew at the front of the church. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton also was there, and Attorney General Janet Reno, and Solicitor General Walter Dellinger sat a few rows back.
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