Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. resigned Friday after a 33-year career as a leading voice of liberalism on the nation’s highest court.
Brennan, at 84 the eldest and most senior among the nine justices, said his “advancing age and medical condition” led to his decision to step down.
His departure gives President Bush his first chance to name a justice to the court, which has been deeply divided in recent years on such issues as a woman’s right to an abortion, affirmative action and separation of church and state. Brennan has been a firm advocate of all three.
Bush, a strong opponent of abortion, was traveling in Wyoming when Brennan’s decision was made public.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) hailed Brennan--appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956--as one of “the greatest justices the country has ever had.”
Last April, just days before his 84th birthday, Brennan said he had no intention of retiring unless his health required it.
In his letter to Bush, Brennan said: “Strenuous demands of court work and its related duties required or expected of a justice appear at this time to be incompatible with my advancing age and medical condition.”
“I, therefore, retire effectively immediately as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.”
National Public Radio reported that Brennan suffered a fall and a small stroke recently and talked over his health with his wife before deciding to leave the court.
Brennan also suffered a small stroke in 1979 that left his right arm and hand partially paralyzed and in 1978 underwent radiation treatments for a cancerous tumor in his throat.
“This was a very difficult decision after almost 34 years of service on the court,” Brennan said in a statement.
“It is my hope that the court during my years of service has built a legacy of interpretation of the Constitution and federal laws to make them responsive to the needs of the people whom they were intended to benefit and protect. This legacy can and will withstand the test of time.”
Brennan’s departure is bound to cause a dramatic change in the liberal-conservative balance at the court.
For more than three decades, Brennan has been a leading exponent of liberalism and, by most accounts, a leading behind-the-scenes strategist in helping mold liberal rulings and, in later years, in preserving them on an increasingly conservative court.
After his appointment, Brennan quickly found a home among the liberal majority led by Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Along with fellow liberal Justice Thurgood Marshall, Brennan has maintained that the Constitution forbids the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment.
He also remains among four justices on the court who wholeheartedly support the court’s 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
He also was the author of a landmark ruling that gave the news media broad protection against libel suits by public figures.
“No individual in this country, on or off the court, has had a more profound and sustained impact upon public policy in the United States,” the conservative National Review magazine said of Brennan.
Although the court has grown more conservative over the years, Brennan has remained a powerful force.
Conservatives have consolidated their power and in most cases command a 5-4 majority. But in several key areas liberals, led by Brennan, have been able to win important victories. He is widely recognized as one of the high court’s strongest intellects and a master behind-scenes strategist in building a consensus on the tribunal.
Just last month, with Brennan voting as part of a five-member majority, the court upheld the federal government’s power to implement affirmative action. The court upheld policies of the Federal Communications Commission giving minorities special preference in the award of broadcast licenses.