I recently ran across the profile of the eponymous hero of the Brennan Center for Justice, which begins:
Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. is universally regarded as one of the most influential and liberal justices of the second half of the 20th century.
If the liberal Brennan was so influential, it must mean that we live under a liberal government. But who believes that? Well, sure, theres those whack-jobs who show up at McCain / Palin events, to at least one of the candidates embarrassment. But somehow I dont think the Brennan Center meant to refer exclusively to those people with its “universally.”
If you agree that the American polity under Reagan and the Bushes has been markedly conservative, and that Clinton was politically successful in part precisely because he “triangulated” between the left and the right, its difficult to see in what sense any American liberal has been conspicuously influential in recent decades.
In short, the Brennan Centers two adjectives are self-contradictory.
But then, if you look more closely, the bio might be saying only that, among liberal justices, he was the most influential, which might be a little like saying that among lefthanded knuckleballers in low-A, so-and-so gave up the fewest home runs. But Im pretty sure the Brennan Center didnt intend such faint praise.
What the Center means by “influential,” of course, is that Brennan is hero-worshiped in the legal academy while his brand of aggressive judicial supremacy is embraced by many other judges, many of them ideologically very conservative indeed. In other words, hes influential in Law World, the entirely artificial domed city in which so many of us spend our professional lives.
He was “liberal” in the sense that he sought to concentrate power in the judiciary, a concentration that furthered the liberal cause during the Civil Rights Era. Bizarrely enough, the Brennan Center seeks to prove his influence by quoting the National Review:
According to the conservative National Review in 1984, “there is no individual in this country, on or off the Court, who has had a more profound and sustained impact upon public policy in the United States.”
The National Review, writing as Reagan was running for reelection (or after his landslide), didnt mean its hyperbole as a compliment. It was charging that Brennan had succeeded in wresting power away from elected leaders. It meant that he wasnt a judge at all.
Probably the staffers at the Brennan Center felt pretty smug about using the National Reviews words, as they believed, against it. But that just makes it weirder that the profile launches its final paragraph with: “Justice Brennans devotion to core democratic freedoms was unwavering.”
If he truly had more profound and sustained impact upon public policy in the United States than Ronald Reagan or any other elected official, its safe to say that Justice Brennan had no devotion to democracy at all, but on the contrary undermined it by exalting himself.
The striking thing about the profile isnt the shrill exaggeration of the National Review article it quotes, but that the authors – and we can be confident it was a committee effort – were unable to perceive the incoherence of their product. Its hard to imagine a clearer example of the way in which attending law school teaches people how to talk without thinking – to maneuver into place prefabricated slabs of words.
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