A Former Clerk Recalls the Chief Justice Notre Dame University Law Professor Richard Garnett served as law clerk to Chief Justice William Rehnquist from 1996 to 1997. He offers Alex Chadwick some personal insight into the character of the conservative jurist.


A Former Clerk Recalls the Chief Justice

A Former Clerk Recalls the Chief Justice

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Notre Dame University Law Professor Richard Garnett served as law clerk to Chief Justice William Rehnquist from 1996 to 1997. He offers Alex Chadwick some personal insight into the character of the conservative jurist.


In his more than 30 years on the court, the chief justice worked most closely with his clerks, among them Judge John Roberts who may now succeed his former boss. Mr. Rehnquist's former clerks remember him not just for his legal values but also for his love of cheeseburgers and beer and weekly tennis games. We know this because we've read the article by Professor Richard Garnett in Slate magazine. He was a clerk for the chief justice nine years ago.

Professor Garnett, welcome to the program. And you actually were his doubles partner the year that you clerked for him. How was his game of tennis?

Professor RICHARD GARNETT (Notre Dame University): The chief's tennis game was much better than mine. The reason I was his doubles partner instead of the usual arrangement, which was to have the best of the three clerks play, is because when the chief tried to play with the best of us, he and his partner beat us so badly that he didn't enjoy it, because their games weren't close. So I was reassigned to be the chief's partner in order to try to even things out a little bit.

CHADWICK: Because you were the worst player?

Prof. GARNETT: I was close to it, yeah.

CHADWICK: You write that you bonked him in the head several times serving. How did he respond to that?

Prof. GARNETT: Several times. He was a good sport. I think he wouldn't have minded if my game were a little better, but he was always a good sport. He was a very cagey player. He didn't move so fast, but he did all these little tricky things that were frustrating for mediocre players like me.

CHADWICK: Now you were excited at the prospect of going to work for the chief justice, because you'd read a book about his earlier days on the court, and he seemed like a quirky and odd and maybe surprising character to you.

Prof. GARNETT: Yeah, the book, which I imagine a lot of your listeners are familiar with, was "The Brethren" by Woodward and Armstrong. Like I said in the essay, I thought, generally speaking, the justices seemed kind of a strange bunch. But this guy Rehnquist seemed like the one who was the most a regular guy, didn't seem to have any strange personal hang-ups, seemed funny and fun-loving. And the book talked in a little bit of detail about how the young guy, Bill Rehnquist, with his sideburns and crazy ties and things, would play practical jokes on clerks or on other justices. And so after reading that book, I remember, it did sort of stick in my mind that this might be kind of a fun job. And then, of course, more than a decade later, I was surprised to have the chance.

CHADWICK: What is it in his personal character that you think would surprise people who know only his public life?

Prof. GARNETT: What would surprise a lot of people and what I wish people knew about him is just how sort of warm and funny and laid back he is. I know his persona on the bench has been sort of a no-nonsense, gruff kind of guy, but he's actually very unassuming, very down-to-earth and not remotely pretentious. In some quarters, there was a little bit of chuckling about those stripes that he put on his sleeves. And some people read into that that he was trying to, you know, stand out or that it was somehow kind of an arrogant move on his part. But I think it was exactly the opposite, actually. He was trying to have a little fun.

CHADWICK: He was ridiculed in editorial cartoons and that sort of thing for wearing those robes with those sleeves. I remember, this was eight or nine years ago he started doing it.

Prof. GARNETT: Yeah, yeah.

CHADWICK: Didn't seem to bother him a bit.

Prof. GARNETT: No, not a bit.

CHADWICK: He just went right ahead.

Prof. GARNETT: He really couldn't have cared less. I mean, it was a striking thing about him. He just was a very level-headed, even-keeled guy. You know, it's a cliche to talk about people being comfortable in their skin, but it's a cliche that works here.

CHADWICK: Richard Garnett teaches law at the University of Notre Dame. He's a former law clerk for Chief Justice William Rehnquist who died on Saturday.

Professor Garnett, thank you for speaking with us.

Prof. GARNETT: My pleasure.

CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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