America's 16th chief justice, William Hubbs Rehnquist, completed 10 years stewardship of the nation's highest court in 1996. Nominated by Richard Nixon as an associate justice in 1972, this brilliant if doctrinaire lawyer became chief justice following Warren Burger's retirement in 1986.
Known for humility and a quirky sense of humor, Rehnquist has amassed what is perhaps the court's most conservative record of the last 25 years, voting consistently interpret the court's jurisdiction narrowly.
Rehnquist has faithfully hewed to judicial restraint, a legal philosophy that interprets the Constitution narrowly, deferring to legislative outcomes wherever possible. In conflicts between federal and state authority, Rehnquist generally favors states.
He believes "the Constitution is not designed to provide for the resolution of our social problems, but only to ensure that when the political branches of government undertake such resolutions, they do so under certain limitation," noted Kenyon College professor Harry M. Clor at a 1992 symposium on the Rehnquist Court.
It's an approach in stark contrast to the judicial activism embraced by liberal judges and some libertarians, who view the Constitution as a statement of principles to be interpreted by judges, or (liberals only here) with reference to prevailing attitudes. Important individual rights, such as a woman's right to an abortion, can be established within the Constitution by this approach, some argue. Not Rehnquist.
Rehnquist and other conservative jurists believe activist judges have invented certain rights, like those for abortion, which they say the Constitution does not establish. They believe the only rights protected are those specifically enumerated, and that court decisions should be rooted as much as possible in the Constitution's text, with judges striving to rule in accordance the framers' original intent. Otherwise, Rehnquist and his fellow conservatives reason, a judge's decision merely reflects a subjective moral opinion and not the rule of law.
Rehnquist's steadfast conservative instincts are generally supported by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Justices Sandra Day 0'Connor (with whom Rehnquist attended Stanford law school) and William Kennedy are frequent allies, while the more moderate to liberal Justices -- Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, and David Souter -- are more often found in opposition to the chief.
After graduating first in his 1952 Stanford Law class, Rehnquist clerked for a year for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson. He then practiced law privately in Phoenix, Ariz., and became active in Republican politics.
Joining the Nixon Administration's Justice Department in 1969, Rehnquist earned a reputation as a forceful conservative. In 1972, the president nominated Rehnquist as associate justice. During bruising confirmation hearings, Rehnquist's critics attacked him as supporting segregation and opposing civil rights. Deftly defending himself, Rehnquist impressed senators with his legal acumen, and was confirmed 68-28 by the full Senate.
Ronald Reagan noted Rehnquist's commitment to conservative judicial principles, and with Burger's retirement in 1986, nominated Rehnquist to become chief justice. Though his appointment, along with the confirmation of fellow conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, was a dream come true for conservatives, 10 years of the Rehnquist court has shown mixed results.
Roe v. Wade, the controversial decision that established a woman's right to an abortion, still stands, as does the Miranda decision requiring warnings from police, as well as a federal ban on praying in public schools. The court also struck down a conservative-backed Colorado initiative barring gays from civil rights protections.
Where Rehnquist seemingly is making his mark is on federal-state issues. In a range of cases considered by the court, from gambling to wage laws to water rights to gun control, momentum is building for greater deference to state laws, a cornerstone of Rehnquist's thought. Some observers say the development could have dramatic implications for other federal laws regulating commerce, the environment and individual rights.
Updated Mar. 3, 1997
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