Professor and former Law School Dean Geoffrey Stone (J.D. ‘71) discussed his time as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan in a talk held at the Law School Tuesday.
Stone clerked for the liberal Justice in the early 1970s. “This was a period of very dramatic change in the makeup of the Court,” said Stone, who witnessed the transition from a liberal Court under Earl Warren to a more conservative court under Warren Burger.
Stone was one of Brennan’s three clerks, taking the position after getting his law degree from Chicago. “It was the first term in which justices began self-consciously selecting their law clerks with an eye on their ideologies.”
One of the cases that stood out to Stone was Roe v. Wade. After its ruling, hundreds of thousands of boxes of letters were delivered to the Supreme Court Justices. “The court was inundated with hate mail, much of which were orchestrated,” said Stone, who is now an editor of the Supreme Court Review. “There was no mechanism for opening these letters because there was no one at the Court with that job,” he joked.
Stone, who observed firsthand a more personal side of the Justices, said the ruling was especially difficult for Brennan. “Brennan was a Catholic, so this for him was a real issue — how to think about his religious values and also his responsibility as a Justice.”
But Brennan wasn’t the only Justice shaken by the Roe v. Wade case. Stone saw conservative justice Harry Blackmun under a green reading light going through thousands of the letters in the middle of the night. “This [had] to have a real impact on Blackmun,” Stone said, calling it an “absolutely fundamental” moment in Blackmun’s political education. “That experience would begin the transformation of Blackmun from being a conservative justice to a liberal justice [because] at that moment, he understood what it meant to be an outcast.”
Recalling the late Justice, Stone said, “Brennan was quite a remarkable individual. He was a beloved person by everyone who knew him. He was warm, genial, good-natured, generally upbeat and always interested in the clerks’ personal lives and professional activities.” Brennan’s ability was finding a common ground and working with his fellow Supreme Court, Stone said.