I'll happily accept Lori Ringhand's challenge to name the "the best and brightest" Supreme Court Justices in history, "in terms of pure brain wattage."I agree with Lori that the current Court has a certified genius in Stephen G. Breyer. I agree that Chief Justice Roberts may give Justice Breyer some stiff competition. And I agree with an anonymous commenter that William H. Rehnquist "was the smartest person on the court" in his time. The old Chief indeed was "less interested in seeming smart than almost any other justice," seeking instead to accomplish results befitting "a conservative legal realist who wasn't concerned with making his decisions seem learned." At least one member of today's Court might write fewer rhetorically florid dissents and more majority opinions if he would only follow Chief Justice Rehnquist's example.
But I digress. In terms of raw intellect, has the Court ever seen anything approaching the firepower that coalesced every time Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis D. Brandeis came to work together? I believe not. These Justices' reputation is heightened by the enduring work of later Courts that converted the pioneering positions of Holmes and Brandeis into what we recognize as contemporary constitutional law. But a towering reputation is sometimes deserved. In the case of Holmes and Brandeis, it is.