Legal scholars, jurists, and politicians in Massachusetts paid tribute to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist yesterday as a giant of American jurisprudence, a pillar of conservative principles, and a pragmatic leader of a closely divided Supreme Court.
Rehnquist, 80, died late Saturday at his home in Arlington, Va., after a battle with thyroid cancer. At his side were his three children, including James C. Rehnquist, a Boston lawyer who lives in Sharon.
Rehnquist's 33 years on the high court, 19 as chief justice, will leave a far-reaching legacy of commitment to judicial restraint and states' rights, court observers said. They also praised Rehnquist for thoughtful, fair-minded rulings and for administering the court with diplomacy and efficiency.
Liberal groups tempered their praise with criticism of rulings they said restricted civil rights, and expressed concern that his successor, and the appointment of a successor to retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, would move the court further to the right.
In a statement, Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy commended Rehnquist's ''strong commitment to the integrity and independence of the courts," yet urged caution in ensuring the court remain ''strongly committed and able to protect the rights and freedoms of all Americans."
Senator John F. Kerry said, ''Every American recognizes the courage and commitment to the Supreme Court that sustained him as he battled serious illness through the very end."
At a news conference to announce plans to provide shelter for evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, Governor Mitt Romney said he was touched by Rehnquist's ''extraordinary record as a jurist and statesman for our nation."
''His strength of character and courage to get off a sick bed and come to the Capitol and swear in the president of the United States was characteristic of a life of service," Romney said.
The Massachusetts legal community yesterday extolled Rehnquist for his confidence in the American legal system and his exceptional legal mind.
Margaret H. Marshall, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, said Rehnquist ''exemplified intellectual rigor and had a profound respect for the rule of law. . . . He left an indelible mark on the judiciary and on our nation," she said in a statement.
Michael S. Greco, a Boston lawyer and president of the American Bar Association, said Rehnquist would be remembered for his ''leadership, intelligence, and integrity. . . . His passionate defense of an independent judiciary . . . reflect the noblest principles that guide our nation," he said.
Martin Healy, general counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, said Rehnquist felt ''a solemn duty to protect the courts and their standing in society," and was an outspoken advocate for more generous court funding. ''He was a judge's judge," he said.
Marion Just, a Wellesley College political science professor, said Rehnquist had a strong pragmatic streak that moderated his ideology. ''He's going to be remembered as someone who moved the court to the right but was willing to negotiate," she said.
Yet critics said Rehnquist, who earned a master's degree from Harvard University, consistently limited individual rights during his time on the court.
Harvard Law School professor David Barron said his decisions ''created an enormous number of barriers to people seeking redress from the government," he said. ''He significantly narrowed the scope of constitutional protection. It's an unfortunate turn in constitutional law."
John Garvey, a constitutional scholar and dean of Boston College Law School, said Rehnquist will go down as one of the greatest chief justices, in large part because his legal outlook embodied a national shift toward conservative thought. ''The country has become more in tune with him than it was before," he said. ''They thought like he did."
Under Rehnquist, the court became less hostile to religion in the public realm and oversaw a ''renaissance of federalism," Garvey said. ''He's been very important in getting the court to recognize limitations on congressional power."
Ralph Ranalli of the Globe staff and Globe Correspondent Michael Levenson contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used.