There is no better way of assessing the legacy of the late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan than by contrasting his view of individual liberty with that advanced by a majority of the present-day court.
Both Brennan, who died this week at the age of 91, and a majority of the current court have made much of individual rights. But the similarity ends there.
What made Brennan one of the most influential -- and one of the best -- justices of this century was an expansive view of the concept that extended it to those who most need the court's protection.
In fact, it was that very penchant that so irked Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, who appointed Brennan, a Catholic and Democrat, to the high court in 1956 for political reasons. Asked later if he'd ever made any mistakes in office, Eisenhower is said to have responded, "Yes, and they're both sitting on the Supreme Court." He was referring to Brennan and former Chief Justice Earl Warren, the former Republican governor of California who became an influential chief justice.
Brennan, in his 34 years on the Supreme Court, consistently read the Constitution -- and particularly the 14th Amendment's due process clause -- in ways that guaranteed what he called "the essential dignity and worth of each individual."
Equally important, he was often able to use his personal charm and integrity to get his colleagues on the bench to read the country's founding document the same way, viewing it as a dynamic framework that could be adapted as society evolved.
The result was rulings strengthening citizens' due-process rights in confrontations with government, strengthening First Amendment protections for free expression, upholding affirmative action for dispossessed minorities and providing individuals with greater access to the federal courts to redress grievances, a result that eventually led to the reinvigoration of American democracy with the "one person, one vote" reapportionment standard.
Even though he was never chief justice, Brennan is recognized as the liberal center of the Warren court. He was the philosophical guiding force who crafted a body of law so vast and influential that its impact still stands, even as succeeding courts have tried to chip away at it.
The current Supreme Court often exhibits a schizophrenic view of individual rights. It doesn't want government interfering with the rights of property owners, business owners and others with the means to work the levers of power to get what they want. But when it comes to those who need the court most -- criminal suspects, the indigent, the dispossessed -- this court often shrinks the Constitution and finds new ways to give the police and other arms of government more power.
In contrast, the dispossessed are the very people Brennan sought to include in the Constitution's embrace. There is no finer legacy than that for someone whose job is to define justice.