Rehnquist dies at age 80

Chief justice helped steer court to the right

September 04, 2005|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who joined the bench a generation ago as its often lone voice of conservative dissent and then steadily steered its turn to the right, died yesterday evening at his home in suburban Virginia. He was 80 and had been undergoing treatments for thyroid cancer since October.

In more than 33 years on the high court, the past 19 as chief justice, Chief Justice Rehnquist was widely credited with leading the revolution that gave broader power to states and local governments. He was one of the court's premier conservatives, consistently supporting school prayer and capital punishment and voting against abortion rights and affirmative action programs.

He also presided over rare historic moments, including the court's central role in the disputed 2000 presidential election and the Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999 -- a moment that gave the public an unprecedented televised view of the chief justice in action, seated at the head of the Senate chamber in his self-designed judicial robe with its distinctive gold stripes on each sleeve.

Justice Rehnquist's death opens the door to what is expected to be a bitterly partisan battle over his replacement, the second vacancy on the court this year.

President Bush has publicly praised conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, but it is unclear whether he would choose either man to be chief.

For now, the court can continue hearing cases and issuing opinions. But in any case where the justices divide 4-4, which is a distinct possibility given its frequent 5-4 decisions while Justice Rehnquist was alive, the decision of the lower court would stand as law, said Robert V. Percival, a University of Maryland law professor.

Justice Rehnquist, who was appointed to the court by President Richard M. Nixon in 1971 and elevated by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, was the second-oldest man ever to serve as chief justice. He also came close to matching the 36-year record for serving on the court, and in recent years, he was the subject of perennial speculation about which of the nine justices might announce retirement plans.

But he defied the rumors and stayed put. When the court opened its term in October last year, Justice Rehnquist was sitting in the middle seat, firing off questions in cases ranging from the future of the federal sentencing guidelines to the death penalty for juveniles.

Over three decades, Justice Rehnquist carved out a staunchly conservative record. But he also showed moderation at key points -- voting to protect free speech, for instance, in the Rev. Jerry Falwell's famous battle against Hustler magazine -- and had displayed a gentler tone on issues such as affirmative action and gay rights as the court in recent years has shifted more toward more moderate middle ground.

His sometimes gruff questioning and cutting legal opinions belied what longtime court observers say was a genial personality. Even as the court's top administrator, Justice Rehnquist did not take himself too seriously or revel in the pomp of his position. He hosted an annual Christmas caroling party and liked to make small bets with court workers on everything from sporting events to snowfall amounts.

An avid tennis player, Justice Rehnquist hired three law clerks each year instead of the now-customary four -- the better to round out a decent doubles match.

More recently, walks had replaced tennis as his exercise of choice. Justice Rehnquist had chronic back pain for years and underwent knee surgery two years ago. But he had appeared in generally good health before the court announced his cancer diagnosis in a terse statement in late October last year. Justice Rehnquist released few details about his illness, but medical experts said that his treatment regiment suggested that he had an aggressive form of thyroid cancer that is fatal in nearly every case.

"Time is a wasting asset; most of us realize it too late, before expending a lot of it very unwisely," Justice Rehnquist cautioned a group of new graduates in commencement address at Marymount University in Northern Virginia two years ago.

"There are dangers that come with successful careers," Justice Rehnquist said in the same address "One can slide almost imperceptibly into a situation where the demands of the job are automatically accorded priority over other, more personal commitments. This can happen in a very subtle way, and it sneaks up on you."

Justice Rehnquist reportedly gave serious though to retiring about 20 years ago, while he was still an associate justice. At the time, he hoped to travel and spend time with his wife, the former Natalie Cornell, who died of ovarian cancer in 1991. He also showed signs of growing impatience with the job, observing once: "The ballgame never ends in our court."

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