Chief Justice Rehnquist

September 05, 2005

FROM HIS early days as an attorney and a top official at the Justice Department to his tenure as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, William H. Rehnquist had a profound impact on the U.S. judiciary and on American life and politics. A friendly man who followed a true conservative philosophy, Mr. Rehnquist, who died last week at the age of 80, after battling thyroid cancer, pushed the court to the right, but was not doctrinaire while doing so.

His death creates a second vacancy on the court in just two months -- following the retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor in July -- after 11 years with no changes. President Bush, who praised Mr. Rehnquist for his "powerful intellect" and his "superb leadership" of the federal court system, also said that the nation's interests would best be served by filling those vacancies "promptly."

Mr. Bush has already named John G. Roberts, Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to replace Justice O'Connor; his confirmation hearing is set to begin tomorrow. Mr. Rehnquist served on the court before being elevated to chief justice, and Mr. Bush could now look to elevate one of the current associate justices. Or he could go back to the list of potential candidates from which Mr. Roberts' name was drawn -- or he could start a whole new search.

Whoever he picks, Mr. Bush has a rare opportunity to create a judicial legacy that will long outlast his presidency. Indeed, the replacement of two justices represents a turning point in recent court history. Though Chief Justice Rehnquist was a consistent, traditional conservative, he was not considered an ideologue. In fact, his strong belief in precedent may help explain why, as a Supreme Court clerk during the 1950s, he wrote a memo opposing school desegregation, although he later insisted that the views were not necessarily his own but those of the justice for whom he worked. Once he became a justice, he was often called the "Lone Ranger," because he was so often alone in dissent.

But as he moved away from the court's fringe and practiced more consensus building, he gained more influence. That was especially true after he was elevated to chief justice in 1986, following the retirement of Warren E. Burger. He was credited with making the court more efficient, and even those who disagreed with him delighted in his sense of humor.

The Rehnquist court favored more power for state and local governments, less separation of church and state, limits on privacy rights and more leeway for police and prosecutors. But Mr. Rehnquist was generally on the losing side of cases favoring abortion rights or affirmative action, where Justice O'Connor often spoke for the majority.

Justice Rehnquist had a lasting effect on politics. He was generally praised for fairness as he presided over the impeachment trial of former President Bill Clinton. But a defining moment of the Rehnquist court was the 5-4 decision that gave the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000.

More recently, Chief Justice Rehnquist's fighting spirit was evident as he refused to step down after it was announced last October that he had thyroid cancer. To the end, he stuck to his own principles -- a resolve that was admirable, even if the principles themselves sometimes were not.

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