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Inspired by Justice William J. Brennan Jr.'s devotion to core democratic freedoms, the Brennan Center for Justice works to strengthen democracy, end mass incarceration, and protect liberty and security.

William Brennan illustration Mark Summers
Supreme Court Justice William J. Bren­nan Jr.
 

The Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law was foun­ded in 1995 by former law clerks to Justice William J. Bren­nan Jr. (1906–97) as a living memorial to his ideals: a commit­ment to a fair and inclus­ive demo­cracy, support for the disad­vant­aged, and respect for indi­vidual rights and liber­ties. Above all, Bren­nan saw the value of “human dignity” as the core of the law. 

Born to Irish immig­rants, Bren­nan grew up as witness to the economic hard­ships and indig­nit­ies of those in his homet­own. “What got me inter­ested in people’s rights and liber­ties,” Bren­nan would later recall, “was the kind of neigh­bor­hood I was brought up in. I saw all kinds of suffer­ing — people had to struggle.”

Bren­nan is regarded as one of the coun­try’s most influ­en­tial justices — the “play­maker” of the Warren Court, with its break­throughs in civil rights and civil liber­ties. Appoin­ted in 1956 by Pres­id­ent Dwight D. Eisen­hower, he authored far-reach­ing opin­ions that strengthened demo­cracy, protec­ted free expres­sion, and bolstered the rights of the accused. Among the most import­ant were Baker v. Carr  (1962), which helped estab­lish the prin­ciple of “one person, one vote,” and New York Times Co. v. Sulli­van (1964), which expan­ded press freedoms.

Bren­nan argued, “We current Justices read the Consti­tu­tion in the only way that we can: as twen­ti­eth century Amer­ic­ans. We look to the history of the time of fram­ing and to the inter­ven­ing history of inter­pret­a­tion. But 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.”

"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.” — Justice William J. Bren­nan Jr.

In the quarter century since its launch, the center has grown from a small star­tup to one of the nation’s lead­ing legal and policy insti­tu­tions. It has a staff of 130 attor­neys, schol­ars, journ­al­ists, and others, and an annual budget of $27 million, with offices in New York City and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. In 2006, it embarked on an expan­ded strategy to augment its litig­a­tion strength with a focus on research, public policy, and commu­nic­a­tions — vital strategies to win legal and policy change. 

Today it has honed a distinct model, combin­ing the elements of a think tank, a legal advocacy group, and a commu­nic­a­tions hub. The policy reforms it developed have helped form a new agenda for reform in states and nation­ally.