It was a beautiful day in May 1979 when the Georgetown University Law School held its commencement.  Honorary degrees were awarded to Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Judge John A. Danaher, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.  It was an hour with extraordinary coincidence because their lives had crossed before.

As the judges walked to the podium, my memory drifted to an earlier day, in 1961, in the office of Judge Warren E. Burger, then a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals and Judge Danaher’s colleague.

I knocked on Judge Burger’s door.  It was ajar.  “Come in, Bill,” he said.  His secretary had alerted him that I had arrived for our appointment.  I entered his private or inner office, an office that he alone used.  It had pictures of Mrs. Burger, family members, and friends in St. Paul, Minnesota.  The principal display in this office was a glass or plastic encased Medal of Honor.  “My grandfather received it at Shiloh,” he said.  “He was a drummer boy who lied about his age, so that he might join a Minnesota regiment.  At Shiloh, he survived.”  However young he was, his conduct that day merited the Medal of Honor.  Very clearly, Judge Burger cherished it and his family’s history.

The afternoon sun filled the office with comfortable light.  He directed me to a chair in front of the desk where he was seated.  By agreement with Judge Danaher, for whom I worked full-time, I also worked part-time as his law clerk on several cases and subjects.

On this occasion, we discussed Justice Felix Frankfurter and Justice Brennan, not pending cases.  Earlier in the week, Justice Frankfurter attended a law clerks’ luncheon.  It was held in the judge’s dining room on the fifth floor of the U.S. Court House at 3rd and Constitution Avenue in Washington.  Eleven law clerks were present.  Each worked for one of the nine judges on the court.  Two additional clerks were motion clerks who worked under the chief judge of the court, other judges, or the court’s clerk.

The law clerks’ tradition was a luncheon attended by people the law clerks decided to invite.  No invited guest declined an invitation.  During that law clerks’ year, all nine judges on the court attended.  Other prominent Washingtonians, members of the Supreme Court, and other attorneys also accepted their invitation.

Judge Burger asked for my impressions of Justice Frankfurter.  I said that he was a stunning conversationalist.  He enjoyed discussing books that we had recently read.  He expressed clear and strong opinions about every subject mentioned.  He discussed several cases in his Court.  His principal comments, however, were about people he had known or with whom he currently worked.  His comments were astonishingly frank and fascinating.  Among those people were President Wilson (“he always planned to get us into war”); Harold Ickes (“he rewrote his ‘secret’ diaries three times”); President Roosevelt and “the young Schlesinger” (Roosevelt and other presidents do not have as much political power as “the enthusiastic historians say”); the early days of the National Labor Relations Board and members of it; President Eisenhower; Chief Justice Earl Warren (“no Lochinvar came from the West and wooed me”); Justice Stanley Reed (he did not comment on his or Reed’s character evidence testimony for Alger Hiss); Dean Landis; Tommy Corcoran; Henry Stimson (“a very able man, a mentor, a severe patrician”); Prof. Paul Freund; Attorney General Biddle; and John W. Davis and Dean Acheson as counsel in his Court (Davis and Acheson “were outstanding because their learning and culture greatly strengthened their legal arguments”).

When discussing people he liked, he described their admirable traits, abilities, and personalities.  If he disliked a person, he did not mutter darkly.  With the exception of two, he forcefully explained his disapproval.

I said to Judge Burger that Justice Frankfurter identified two people as the worst human beings he had ever known.  He despised them.  His words were scathing, searing, and expressed with unbridled hatred.  He said that they were without any redeeming value.  They were corrupt, evil, and utterly despicable individuals.

Frankfurter said they were Joseph P. Kennedy and William O. Douglas.  Without vulgarity, he expressed his loathing in the strongest possible terms.  He said they deserved the intense hatred he expressed.

As Frankfurter canvassed the field of famous acquaintances, and people for whom he had worked or who had exercised substantial influence on his life, including several justices then on the Supreme Court or who had served with him at an earlier time, he offered pointed approval or criticism, but not of Joseph P. Kennedy or William O. Douglas.  About them, he offered sulfurous conclusions: They should never have been born, and “there is a special place in Hell they will occupy.”

I said I was stunned by Frankfurter’s unreserved comments.  In such a setting, no person I knew had spoken as strongly and severely as Frankfurter.  Judge Burger did not comment about Frankfurter’s opinions of Kennedy and Douglas.

He asked me if he spoke about Justice Brennan.  I said he did.  Frankfurter had said that Brennan approached law as if it were a union-hall election.  He simply counted votes, and this forced him into “wooden logic and brittle thought.”  He said Brennan did not learn from his previous appellate-court experience and added nothing to the Supreme Court.

Judge Burger asked if I knew why he was appointed.  I knew that Eisenhower appointed Brennan in 1956 to replace Justice Minton, but nothing more.

Judge Burger replied that Brennan was appointed because, during the election of 1956, Eisenhower wanted to appoint an Irish Roman Catholic to the Supreme Court.  “Your judge, Judge Danaher, was selected for the appointment,” he said.  In a few days, the announcement was to be made.  Then, “the New Yorkers and the Rockefeller crowd” learned about his anticipated appointment.  They were determined—desperately so—to stop it.  Herb Brownell, the attorney general, was their point man.  He moved Heaven and Earth to stop it.

He said that this was when Brennan entered the picture.  He recalled that neither Brownell nor Eisenhower knew anything about him, but Brennan delivered an address that was written or crafted by the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court.  Apparently, he had become sick, could not deliver the address, and asked Brennan to deliver it for him.  The newspaper gave Brennan credit for the address.  Brownell, or one of his aides, read about it.  Based on that, Brennan seemed reasonable enough, and he was a Roman Catholic and Irish.  Brownell and the New Yorkers insisted that his name be put forward as a substitute for Judge Danaher.

Judge Burger knew this because he was in the White House and heard the discussions among Brownell, Eisenhower, and other members of the White House staff.

“Why did they dislike Judge Danaher so much?” I asked.

Judge Burger answered, “Danaher was a Taft man, one of his most trusted colleagues in the Senate and throughout the years.  In the Republican Convention of 1952, he was a Taft man.”  He was among Eisenhower’s first appointments to a federal appellate court, but the “New York crowd was determined that a Taft man would not be appointed to the Supreme Court or to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.”

They succeeded, and he said he would not be surprised if Frankfurter knew why Brennan was placed on the Supreme Court.

My attention returned to the graduation ceremony.  After the president of Georgetown University or the Law School’s dean conferred an honorary degree on Justice Brennan, he turned to Judge Danaher and began to read a history of his achievements.

In addition to what the honorary degree stated, he was a member of the outstanding Danaher family of Connecticut, a U.S. senator from Connecticut between 1939 and 1945, and an influential member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during World War II (when it was a great committee because it understood great responsibilities).  He had significant visits with Winston Churchill at the British Embassy in Washington.  He was a passionate Christian, an outstanding conservative, a senatorial colleague, and a strong personal and professional friend of Sen. Robert A. Taft.

He was a senator who cared deeply about his state and its citizens, including several families of Jews who arrived safely in Connecticut after Senator Danaher interceded with the German ambassador to the United States before December 1941 for their release from the Third Reich.  Over 20 years later, when a member of one of those families died, he received letters thanking him for the full and happy life that the deceased had lived in Connecticut.  In 1943, as a senator, he asked about the nature of American political policy toward the Soviet Union and what it would be if the Soviets attempted to enter deeply into Eastern Europe as a result of the war.

As a Supreme Court justice, he would have prevented the ravages and devastation that constitutional law and, more generally, federal law began to experience in the late 1950’s.

In those days, there really were such men.  He was not appointed to the Supreme Court, but Judge John A. Danaher was such a man.  When he died, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger’s remarks reflected on the sterling qualities in Judge Danaher’s life and career.  On that bright afternoon in 1979, so did his honorary degree from Georgetown University.