Uncle Bill

Robert F. Brennan talks ABOUT consumer law ... and UNCLE William J. Brennan Jr.

Published in 2016 Southern California Super Lawyers — February 2016

U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. was dubbed “probably the most influential” justice of the last century by no less an authority than fellow justice, and political foe, Antonin Scalia.

But to Bob Brennan he was Uncle Bill.

“He was just the smartest guy in the room,” recalls Brennan, who practices consumer rights law in La Crescenta. “It was like he was the sun and the planets were revolving around him. … The man just had an incredible presence.”

Justice Brennan had seven siblings, including one who died in World War II, and all were highly accomplished, Brennan says. “But obviously, the all-star here was my uncle.”

Bob’s father, Frank Brennan, general counsel for E.&J. Gallo Winery for many years, tried to steer his son toward the law, but Bob resisted. Instead, after majoring in English, he worked in San Francisco as a paralegal and a comedy writer.

“This is circa 1982-1983, so I’m sure that a lot of my jokes had to do with Ronald Reagan.” Eventually, economic reality—and long talks with his father—redirected Brennan to law school, where he was in for a surprise.

“I found out that I really enjoyed practicing law,” he says. “I had a skill set that was well-suited.”

Litigation, in particular, interested him, but an incident inspired him to narrow his focus. While working as a summer associate, Brennan rented a room that already had an occupant. Brennan notified the landlord, canceled and moved out. Two years later, he discovered the landlord put negative information on his credit report.

“It made me upset, and piqued my interest in credit reporting cases,” he says. “I started doing lemon law. Then I started Fair Credit Reporting Act cases … consumer financial- and consumer goods-type cases. I have been doing that for over 20 years.”

Brennan has just finished trying a case for a client who had his identity stolen by a man who bought three cars using his victim’s credit. The client struggled to clear his name and managed to do so with all but one creditor—BMW Financial. Brennan landed a Fair Credit Reporting Act and identity theft verdict of $430,000. In addition to that, the judge awarded attorney’s fees of approximately $280,000.

“The one thing I think I see on a regular basis that other people don’t see is the effect that some of these consumer-abuse situations can have on individuals,” Brennan says. “It can be really, really devastating.”

His uncle, who passed away in 1997, would no doubt have approved. The year before Justice Brennan’s death, his nephew attended his 90th birthday party.

“I got to meet 20 to 30 of his clerks,” Brennan recalls. “Everyone referred to him as Yoda: this little guy who had more wisdom and power than anyone else on the planet. They all talked about how much fun it was to work with him, how decent a human being he was.”

Brennan was known for getting along with everyone—with one notable exception. “My uncle had his differences with Justice [Warren E.] Burger,” says Brennan. “Dick Nixon wanted to get rid of William J. Brennan, and so Justice Burger became the person assigned to giving Justice Brennan assignments that would interfere with his life.”

Brennan’s first wife, Marjorie, was in the hospital with cancer, for example, ”and my uncle wanted to visit her as often as possible. Chief Justice Burger got wind of that, and he would continuously give my uncle assignments that would interfere with my uncle’s free ability to [do so]. ... This is probably coming from Nixon—that Burger was trying to pressure my Uncle Bill to resign—but my Uncle Bill refused. He took on whatever additional assignments he was getting.”

That was the anomaly, though. “In terms of the modern political and judicial landscape where judges are disagreeing with each other all the time,” Brennan says, “Justice Brennan literally stands alone.”

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