Rehnquist: A Life in the Law

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist

hide captionChief Justice William H. Rehnquist

U.S. Supreme Court

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who served on the Supreme Court for 33 years, 18 of them as Chief Justice, died Saturday at his home. He was 80, and had suffered from thyroid cancer.

About William Rehnquist

Born: Milwaukee, Wis., Oct. 1, 1924

Graduated: Stanford University Law School, 1952

Clerked: For Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson, 1952-1953 term.

Law Practice: Phoenix, Ariz., 1953-1969

Dept. of Justice: Assistant attorney general, Office of Legal Counsel, 1969-1971

Nominated to Court: By President Nixon, 1971

Named Chief Justice: By President Reagan, 1986

At the end of 1971, Rehnquist was thrust into the national spotlight when President Richard Nixon appointed him to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II. Despite strong objections from liberal and labor leaders over his civil rights record, he joined the Court on January 7, 1972. When the Chief Justice Warren Burger announced his resignation in 1986, President Ronald Reagan nominated Rehnquist to replace him. Once again, liberal politicians, such as Edward M. Kennedy, strongly opposed his nomination and criticized his record on race and civil rights. Despite the objections, the Senate confirmed Rehnquist as Chief Jusice on September 26, 1986. The life-long conservative then set about charting a new course for the former Warren Court.

Chief Justice Rehnquist at a 2003 ceremony. Credit: National Archives

hide captionIn 2003, Chief Justice Rehnquist spoke at the National Archives, where the Constitution returned to public display.

National Archives

William Hubbs Rehnquist was born on October 1, 1924, into a well-to-do Republican family in Milwaukee, Wisc. He grew up in the affluent suburb of Shorewood, attending public schools there. His father, William Benjamin, was a paper salesman, and a first-generation American of Swedish descent. His mother, Margery Peck, spoke five languages and graduated from the University of Wisconsin. His parents held great respect for Republican leaders, such as President Herbert Hoover, and their conservative views had a lasting impact on their son.

Notable Decisions by Chief Justice Rehnquist

Researched by NPR staff

On Federalism: Rehnquist arguably will be best remembered for leading a coalition of justices who, over the past decade, have reined in the federal government's reach. Recent court decisions — such as Gonzales v. Raich, in which justices ruled that federal anti-drug laws trump state medical marijuana laws — have put the future of Rehnquist's legacy of federalism in doubt.

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On Abortion: As an associate justice, Rehnquist dissented in the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. In 1991, he upheld the government's right to withhold federal funds from health clinics that discuss abortion as a viable option to pregnancy.

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On Religion in Schools: In 2000, Rehnquist strongly dissented in a court ruling against allowing organized prayer at a public school football game. In 2002, he wrote the majority opinion in support of an Ohio program that used vouchers for tuition at religious schools.

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On Civil Rights & Sexual Harassment: Rehnquist has written for the majority that sexual harassment constitutes a form of discrimination banned under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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On Criminal Law: Despite his previous opposition to mandatory Miranda warnings, in 2000, Rehnquist reversed course, saying the warnings had become ingrained in our national culture.

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Other Significant Rulings: Other notable Rehnquist decisions include the free speech case Hustler v. Falwell, and the controversial ruling that ended the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election — resulting in President Bush's first term in office.

When the United States entered World War II, Rehnquist was attending Kenyon College in Ohio on a scholarship. He left college and joined the Army Air Corps, serving as a weather observer in North Africa from 1943 to 1946. After the war, he resumed his studies, earning four degrees in quick succession. With assistance from the GI Bill, he attended Stanford University, graduating in 1948 with a bachelor of arts (Phi Beta Kappa) and a master's degree in political science. He earned a second masters degree from Harvard University. Rehnquist then enrolled at Stanford Law School, where he was well known among his professors and classmates as brilliant and staunchly conservative. He graduated first in his class in 1952. His classmate Sandra Day O'Connor graduated third.

After a Supreme Court clerkship with justice Robert Jackson, he married Natalie Cornell, a fellow Stanford student, in 1953. They settled in Phoenix, Arizona, and had three children — James, Janet, and Nancy. In Arizona, Rehnquist began practicing law and associating himself with conservative and Republican causes. His Republican party connections led him to Washington in 1969, where he joined the Nixon White House as assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. From there, he quickly ascended to the nation's highest court.

During his early years on the Court, Rehnquist was often the lone conservative dissenter. He dissented in religious cases, states rights cases, women's rights cases, civil rights cases, and death penalty cases. So frequently was he the lone dissenter that his law clerks once presented him with a small Lone Ranger doll.

Later, as Chief Justice, he became the architect of conservative consensus. Nowhere is his impact more apparent than in the area of federal versus state power. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Rehnquist repeatedly failed to persuade other justices that state sovereignty could trump federal congressional power. By the 1990s, however, he had a five-justice majority that regularly struck down federal laws for stepping on states' rights. His conservative majority struck down more federal laws than any court in memory, and liberals came to level the same criticism that conservative critics used to direct the liberal Warren court — the criticism of judicial activism.

In a number of areas, Rehnquist, a Lutheran, achieved by court decision what conservatives were not able to achieve in Congress. He led a movement to speed the death penalty. He managed to cut back dramatically on affirmative action, though he lost the battle on college admissions. He also chipped away significantly at the rigid wall of separation between church and state erected by earlier liberal courts. Although he did not succeed in overturning Roe v. Wade, which he had opposed in 1973, he managed to make it easier for states to erect hurdles to abortion.

Rehnquist presided over several pivotal historic cases, namely President Bill Clinton's 1999 impeachment and the high court's decisive ruling in the disputed 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and then Vice President Al Gore. For a time, the five-to-four decision tarnished the reputation of the Court as an apolitical institution. In response, Rehnquist, who cast the tie-breaking vote, and some of his fellow justices went out of their way in rare public remarks to portray the decision as based on the law and unaffected by politics.

Rehnquist was credited with being a highly effective manager of the Court, who used humor to build good working relationships among the Justices. He was an enthusiastic fan of Gilbert and Sullivan's musicals. In 1994, he added gold stripes to his traditional black robe after seeing a production of their operetta Iolanthe (see NPR related story link). He was a student of history, particularly of the Supreme Court, and wrote several books about it. For many years, he left Washington and spent his summers in Vermont.

Chief Justice Rehnquist made his last official public appearance on January 20, 2005, when he swore in President George W. Bush to his second term as president. Prior to that, he had been absent from the Court since late October 2004, when his cancer was diagnosed. Rehnquist is survived by his three children.

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