Presiding over a conservative shift in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, Rehnquist participated in the overturning or undermining of many liberal precedents, even though he frequently continued to find himself on the side of the minority.
Born in Wisconsin in 1924, William H. Rehnquist proved to be a formidable presence and an intellectual force before reaching the Supreme Court. After serving as a meteorologist during World War II, he attended Stanford University Law School, where he finished first in his class, two places higher than his future Court colleague Sandra Day O’Connor
Rehnquist’s loyalty to the Nixon administration was rewarded with an appointment to the Supreme Court as a replacement for the retired Justice John M. Harlan
William H. Rehnquist in 1972.
The furor over his memo lengthened Rehnquist’s confirmation, but he was able to overcome the issue and won confirmation on January 7, 1972. He then immediately established himself as the most conservative justice on the Court, consistently ruling for government against the individual in civil liberties cases and for state government against the federal government in federalism cases. In his opinions, Rehnquist focused on the misuse of judicial power and carved out a position of judicial restraint as he called for judges to forgo the use of judicial review and to defer to legislative judgments.
Rehnquist also exhibited a keen sense of humor and the ability to mold personal relationships with even his most liberal colleagues. He maintained close friendships with Justices William J. Brennan, Jr., and William O. Douglas, with whom he had strong disagreements on legal issues. He also exhibited leadership abilities, attracting the votes of his colleagues in support of his views. This ability contributed to President Ronald Reagan’s
During the 1970’s, Rehnquist acquired a reputation as the Court’s conservative conscience, earning the nickname “Lone Ranger” because of his willingness to write solo dissents in support of his views. He disagreed with a high percentage of the Court’s landmark cases during that decade. Dissenting in the landmark case that recognized the right of women to have abortions, Roe v. Wade
Rehnquist wrote a particularly important decision during the 1970’s espousing his views on
During the 1970’s, Rehnquist established himself as the most doctrinaire conservative on the Court. He was a justice willing to argue his views alone and in dissent. He presented his views forcefully but was frequently unable to convince his colleagues to follow his lead. However, with the aid of new Republican justices appointed during the 1980’s, Rehnquist frequently found himself in the majority and able to write his views into the law.
Rehnquist’s most loyal ally during his second decade on the Court was his old law school colleague, Sandra Day O’Connor
Rehnquist authored opinions and joined others in limiting protections for criminal defendants. In Quarles v. New York
Rehnquist also joined opinions allowing for greater church and state cooperation and interaction. In Widmar v. Vincent
One of Rehnquist’s major setbacks was in the area of federalism
Rehnquist’s unwavering conservatism made him the first choice of the Reagan administration to replace Chief Justice Warren E. Burger
From the 1980’s, Chief Justice Rehnquist was increasingly, but not always, able to gain majorities in favor of his conservative views on the law. In Webster v. Reproductive Health Services
Although Rehnquist was willing to acknowledge a person’s right to die
Rehnquist placed a high value on private property and wanted to put definite limits on use of the takings clause
In interpreting the equal protection clause
Rehnquist appeared to assume that it was in society’s interest to interpret the constitutional rights of criminal defendants
In 1999, after the House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton
In October, 2004, it was announced that Rehnquist had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Despite his weakened condition, he was able to appear briefly at President Bush’s second inauguration to administer the oath of office. Rehnquist continued to participate in many deliberations and decisions, even though he was forced to miss forty-four oral arguments. On September 3, 2005, he died in his home at Arlington, Virginia.
During his long career on the Supreme Court, Rehnquist maintained a consistently conservative vision of the law. Working with his allies on the Court, in particular Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, he had a degree of success in promoting his agenda, especially in the areas of federalism, the establishment clause, court-ordered busing, and the rights of criminal defendants. However, from Rehnquist’s perspective, the balance between liberals and conservatives continued to be precarious, and during his last few years he continued to find himself with the minority in key decisions on abortion, affirmative action, and homosexual rights. Almost all scholars agree, nevertheless, that Rehnquist was one of the most influential justices to serve on the Court during the modern period.
Bradley, Craig, ed. The Rehnquist Legacy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Scholarly collection of essays on Rehnquist’s tenure as chief justice. Friedelbaum, Stanley. The Rehnquist Court: In Pursuit of Judicial Conservatism. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Emphasizes the conservative direction of the Court under Rehnquist’s leadership. Hensley, Thomas R. The Rehnquist Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2006. Comprehensive reference handbook on Rehnquist’s tenure as chief justice. Irons, Peter. Brennan v. Rehnquist: The Battle for the Constitution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. Fascinating comparative study of Rehnquist’s and William J. Brennan’s opposing ideologies and strategies, written from a liberal perspective. Lazarus, Edward. Closed Chambers. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. Insider’s view of the Rehnquist Court and its decision-making processes. Rehnquist, William H. Supreme Court. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005. Contains first-hand information about Rehnquist’s experiences on the Court as well as his views on the Court’s history. Schwartz, Herman, ed. The Rehnquist Court: Judicial Activism on the Right. New York: Hill & Wang, 2005. Collection of interesting discussions on many topics from a variety of viewpoints. Tushnet, Mark. A Court Divided: The Rehnquist Court and the Future of Constitutional Law. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Argues that the differences between the modern conservative justices and the traditional conservatives made it impossible for Rehnquist to accomplish all he wanted.
Burger, Warren E.
Bush v. Gore
Gratz v. Bollinger/Grutter v. Bollinger
Kennedy, Anthony M.
Lopez, United States v.
O’Connor, Sandra Day
Printz v. United States
Webster v. Reproductive Health Services