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Alumni Profile: Stephen Wermiel ’68

He started out writing about the Supreme Court for BFS’ former student newspaper The Life.  It spawned a decades-long career covering the court up close for the Boston Globe and the Wall Street Journal, and his co-authorship of the acclaimed book Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion.

Stephen Wermiel ’68 seemed delighted on November 19th to be back at his alma mater addressing the Upper School student body about his days as a Brooklyn Friends student. The student newspaper was called The Life, and Stephen wrote an article for it about the US Supreme Court. Little did he know then that the experience was a kind of foreshadowing of what would shape the rest of his life.
Today, some 40 years later, he is a veteran Supreme Court reporter for the Wall Street Journal, a Fellow in Law and Government at the American University Washington College of Law, and Associate Director of the school’s Summer Institute on Law & Government. He is also receiving wide acclaim for the book which he co-wrote, Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), the definitive biography of legendary Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, the most liberal judge in the court’s history, who ruled on Roe v. Wade and other important cases.

Stephen was born at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine just outside of Paris, and moved to Brooklyn when he was two. “We lived out in Beach Haven, not far from Brighton Beach,” he said. A BFS lifer, he started attending the school in kindergarten. “My parents thought BFS offered a strong educational foundation, enhanced by the small size and individual attention students would receive.”

He grew to love BFS, so much so that when his parents wanted him to transfer to Bronx Science or Stuyvesant for high school for their strong academic reputations, he refused to go. “There were many wonderful teachers,” he said. “Those that are most memorable are Martin Norregaard who taught English and History in 7th and 8th grade, Alberta Magzanian who taught History in high school, and Phil Schwartz who taught high school English.”

During his freshman year at BFS the family moved to 135 Eastern Parkway, an apartment building then called Turner Towers, “which had numerous Brooklyn Friends families.” That may not have been a mere coincidence. Turner Towers was built in the 1920s by Turner Construction, whose President and Founder Henry C. Turner was a BFS parent and Brooklyn Monthly Meeting member, who spearheaded fundraising efforts in the 1930s to buy the school an athletic field. The field was later sold to purchase 375 Pearl Street.

Excerpt of Stephen Wermiel ’68’s talk with the BFS Upper School.

After graduating BFS he attended Tufts University. “I had always planned to be a lawyer but got very interested in newspapers when I wrote for and then was editor of the BFS monthly paper, The Life,” he reflected. His interest in journalism was so profound that he became editor of Tufts’ student newspaper as well. That in turn launched a 20-year career as a legal reporter, starting with a summer internship at the Boston Globe.

He graduated Tufts in 1972 and started working for the Globe full time. Soon they sent him to their Washington bureau, and several years later he became the Wall Street Journal’s Supreme Court reporter. Still, a career in law was calling to him, and he began law school at night at American University Washington College of Law, while continuing to cover the court by day. He obtained his law degree in 1982 but continued his career as a legal reporter.

In 1986 another major episode began in Stephen’s life when he was introduced face-to-face to one of his heroes, Justice Brennan, “by a mutual friend, Judge Abner Mikva, a former congressman and chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington,” Stephen explained. The meeting wasn’t just a happy coincidence. Judge Mikva knew that Brennan was turning 80 and marking 30 years on the Supreme Court, and that he was seeking a biographer. Privately, both judges knew Stephen’s work as a reporter and considered him the perfect man for the job, but they weren’t sure he’d accept the daunting task.

They didn’t need to worry because Stephen’s wheels were already turning. He took the bait and threw his name into the hat all on his own. “Mikva and Brennan led me to believe that it was my idea and that I was selling the concept to Brennan, but I now understand that wasn’t what really happened.”

Brennan, an Irish-Catholic lawyer who came from working class roots in Newark, NJ, was a major influence in defining free speech, and in defending a woman’s right to choose, during his long tenure on the court. “My research turned up even greater influence than I realized,” said Stephen. His admiration for this “liberal lion” partly stems from the Quaker values he learned at Brooklyn Friends. “The lessons I learned at BFS have a remarkable parallel in my work on Justice Brennan,” he said. “Brennan came to believe that the Supreme Court’s role was to interpret the Constitution in a way that recognized and protected the dignity of all people.” He considers Brennan’s vision, despite the fact that he was a conservative and devout Catholic in his personal life, to be “a great representation of Quaker values.” Brennan’s tenure also dispelled the once common prejudice and fear in the US that a Catholic judge would be taking orders from the Pope. Clearly for Brennan, a staunch pro-choice judge, nothing could have been further from the truth.

While Stephen continued his years-long research along with co-author and fellow law journalist Seth Stern, he was asked to be a teaching fellow at William and Mary Law School. He accepted the position and decided to switch careers, leaving journalism behind for academia. He went on to teach at Georiga State University Law School for several years before returning to join the faculty of his alma mater at American University. His much-lauded book was released in 2010.

Above and beyond his career as a professor and acclaimed author specializing in the workings of the Supreme Court, Stephen also remains actively involved in humanitarian projects. “I helped found and still work with a program called the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project,” he explained, “in which about 50 law students teach Constitutional law in D.C. public high schools.” He also volunteers for the Individual Rights and Responsibilities section of the American Bar Association, and serves as editorial chair of the quarterly magazine, Human Rights.

Stephen’s wife Rhonda Schwartz is the senior producer for the Brian Ross Investigative Unit at ABC News. Their daughter Anne has followed in her father’s footsteps, recently graduating from Tufts and currently working as a newspaper photo editor in New York. When Stephen’s not working he enjoys cooking and watching baseball, “especially the New York Yankees.”