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Chief justice known for potent intellect

William H. Rehnquist, whose 19 years as chief justice of the United States saw the Supreme Court move decisively to the right, died yesterday of cancer at his home in Arlington, Va. He was 80 and had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer in October.

Unlike his predecessor as chief justice, Warren E. Burger, Justice Rehnquist did not have the regal appearance or lofty bearing of a classic high magistrate. Instead, he had a notably formidable intellect.

''Bill Rehnquist is probably the quickest lawyer I ever met," Justice Lewis Powell once said of his colleague. Indeed, Justice Rehnquist's intellectual prowess earned him the nickname ''brains of the Justice Department" during his 2 1/2 years as assistant attorney general and head of the department's Office of Legal Counsel during the first Nixon administration.

That intellectual firepower was one of three factors that inspired President Nixon to nominate Justice Rehnquist to the court in 1971. The others were his relative youth -- he was 47 at the time of his nomination -- and ideological dependability. He had spent 15 years as an associate justice prior to becoming chief justice. During that time, he was the court's most conservative member.

As assistant attorney general, Justice Rehnquist had served as the administration's point man on Capitol Hill, frequently testifying on behalf of such conservative anticrime measures as pretrial detention, wiretapping, and no-knock entries.

Nixon, a vocal critic of the court's liberal activism under Burger's predecessor, Earl Warren, had pledged to nominate justices who were ''strict constructionists" of the Constitution. Justice Rehnquist clearly fit that bill. The Supreme Court, he argued in a 1976 speech, does not possess ''a roving commission to second-guess Congress, state legislatures, and state and federal administrative officers concerning what is best for the country."

Yet strict construction proved easier to proclaim than implement. Nixon appointed four Supreme Court justices: Burger, Powell, Harry A. Blackmun, and Justice Rehnquist. Even so, the Burger Court did not so much undo the legacy of the Warren Court as consolidate it. Much of that was attributable to Burger's relative ineffectuality as chief justice. Indeed, some historians refer to his tenure as the ''Brennan Court," arguing it was Justice William J. Brennan Jr., the court's leading liberal, who had the most impact on its decisions.

No one, however, has disputed the accuracy of ''Rehnquist Court" as a designation of Justice Rehnquist's years as chief justice. Where Burger failed in moving the court very far to the right, Justice Rehnquist succeeded.

He had considerable help from Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Nearly all of their court appointments went to conservatives. Nonetheless, the impact of Justice Rehnquist's personality should not be underestimated.

On the Burger Court, he had earned a reputation as a maverick and frequent dissenter. His law clerks referred to him as the ''Lone Ranger" because of how frequently he stood apart from a court filled with liberals and moderates. In fact, Justice Rehnquist might be seen as a less-acerbic version of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Justice Rehnquist was one of two dissenting votes, for example, in the court's 1973 decision on Roe v. Wade, which recognized a constitutional right to abortion. And in his dissent from a key 1978 affirmative action ruling, United Steelworkers of America v. Weber, he called Brennan's majority opinion ''a tour de force reminiscent not of jurists such as Hale, Holmes, or Hughes, but of escape artists such as Houdini."

Yet Justice Rehnquist never let an ideological bent or taste for pungent expression obscure his fundamentally affable nature.

''I don't agree with him on much," said his ideological opposite, Justice Thurgood Marshall, ''but he's a great guy" and ''a great chief justice." One reason for his fellow justices' high opinion was that Justice Rehnquist never affected airs or patronized them, as Burger had. Justice Rehnquist's combination of amiability and unpretentiousness may not have won him votes, but it helped ensure he would not lose any.

His crisp efficiency presiding over the justices' conferences further enhanced Justice Rehnquist's prestige among his colleagues. A stickler for punctuality, he also set time limits for discussion during the justices' closed-door conferences. Justices who spoke too long would receive a withering look known as the ''Rehnquist stare." His dislike of wasting time extended to the bench: During tedious oral arguments, Justice Rehnquist would send other justices notes with trivia questions.

With Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas as his most dependable allies, and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy siding with him almost as frequently, Justice Rehnquist increasingly found himself in the majority on a wide range of issues. He strongly supported the death penalty, opposed abortion and affirmative action, and played a key role in restricting the power of the federal government over the states. An advocate of the rights of religious groups, Justice Rehnquist called Thomas Jefferson's assertion that the Constitution placed a ''wall of separation between church and state" a ''misleading metaphor."

William Hubbs Rehnquist was born in Milwaukee on Oct. 1, 1924, the son of William B. Rehnquist, a wholesale paper salesman, and Marjorie (Peck) Rehnquist. He grew up in Shorewood, Wis., an affluent Milwaukee suburb.

After a year at Kenyon College in Ohio, Justice Rehnquist enlisted in the Army Air Force. He served as a weather observer in North Africa, rising to the rank of sergeant. While in the service, he read Friedrich Hayek's conservative classic, ''The Road to Serfdom." ''It made quite an impression on me," Justice Rehnquist told C-SPAN.

Upon leaving the service, in 1946, Justice Rehnquist transferred to Stanford University. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In 1949, he earned a master's degree in government at Harvard. He decided to go to law school, choosing Stanford rather than Harvard because, as he later put it, he ''couldn't take Harvard liberalism."

Excelling at law school, Justice Rehnquist graduated first in his class. O'Connor, a classmate, later described Justice Rehnquist as ''head and shoulders above all the rest of us in sheer legal talent and ability. . . . He was definitely the star of our class." After graduation, Justice Rehnquist spent 18 months as a law clerk for Justice Robert Jackson. His most notable act during his clerkship did not come to light until his confirmation hearings in 1971.

At Jackson's request, Justice Rehnquist submitted a memorandum to help him prepare for oral arguments in Brown v. Board of Education, the case whose outcome would determine the future of legal segregation in the United States. The memo concluded: ''I realize that it is an unpopular and unhumanitarian position, for which I have been excoriated by 'liberal' colleagues, but I think Plessy v. Ferguson was right and should be affirmed. WHR." (Plessy was the 1896 court ruling that upheld segregation and the doctrine of ''separate but equal.")

During his confirmation hearings, Justice Rehnquist said he was summarizing Jackson's views rather than offering his own. The historian Richard Kluger concluded otherwise in ''Simple Justice," his history of Brown v. Board of Education. ''Taking the careers and judicial assertions of both in their totality," Kluger wrote, ''one finds a preponderance of evidence to suggest that the memorandum in question . . . was an accurate statement of [Justice Rehnquist's] own views on segregation, not those of Robert Jackson."

Inspiring further questions about Justice Rehnquist's racial attitudes were certain actions in Arizona, where he moved in 1953 after his clerkship ended. He signed restrictive covenants on deeds that prohibited the sale of real estate to minorities. There were accusations that he had intimidated African-American and Hispanic voters while providing ''ballot security" during the early 1960s. And he opposed a Phoenix public-accommodations law in 1964.

It was largely because of doubts about his racial sensitivity that 33 votes were cast against his confirmation as chief justice, the largest number ever recorded.

Practicing law in Phoenix and active in local Republican politics, Justice Rehnquist became friends with Senator Barry Goldwater, Republican of Arizona, and wrote speeches for his 1964 presidential campaign. He also got to know Richard Kleindienst, a prominent state Republican Party leader. When Nixon named Kleindienst deputy attorney general, he brought Justice Rehnquist to Washington.

Nixon nominated him for justice to fill the seat vacated by the retirement of Justice John Marshall Harlan. Reagan nominated him to succeed Burger in 1986. At one point, though, it had looked as though Justice Rehnquist might step down from the bench. Severe back pain had required him to take the painkiller Placidyl from 1972 to 1981. That year he underwent successful treatment for drug dependency.

Justice Rehnquist was a devotee of Broadway show tunes and patriotic songs. He enjoyed leading the singing of Christmas carols at the court's annual holiday party. His love of music even affected his appearance on the bench. In 1995, Justice Rehnquist unveiled a judicial gown of his own design, bearing a pair of gold stripes on each sleeve. Its inspiration? The robes worn by the Lord Chancellor in a production of Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta ''Iolanthe."

Justice Rehnquist leaves a son, James, who resides in the Boston area; two daughters, Nancy Spears of Middleburg, Vt., and Janet Rehnquist of Arlington, Va.; and six grandchildren, the Associated Press reported.

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