William Hubbs Rehnquist

William Hubbs Rehnquist, (born 1924) one of the most Conservative members of the Supreme Court, became the court's Chief Justice when he succeeded Justice Warren Burger in 1986.

William Hubbs Rehnquist was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 1, 1924. He grew up in the well-to-do Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood where his father, a first generation American of Swedish parentage, was a wholesale paper salesman. His mother, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, was a housewife and a civic activist and, fluent in five foreign languages, worked as a freelance translator for local companies. At an early age he embraced his family's respect for such leaders of the Republican Party as Alf Landon, Wendell Wilkie, Herbert Hoover, and Robert A. Taft. As a child, he once told a teacher that his career plans were to "change the world."

Rehnquist attended public schools and as feature editor of the paper of the all-white Shorewood high school was critical of such news commentators as Walter Winchell whom he believed interpreted rather than reported the news. At 17 during World War II the young Rehnquist volunteered as a neighborhood civil defense officer. After attending one year of college on scholarship, he joined the Army Air Corps as a weather observer, serving principally in North Africa from 1943 to 1946. When he returned from Africa he first used his G.I. Bill benefits, then worked various part-time jobs to attend Stanford University in California. Rehnquist was an excellent student; majoring in political science he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1948. He received Master's degrees from Stanford and Harvard universities before completing a law degree at Stanford, where he was editor of the law review and graduated first in his class in 1952. His conservative views were solidly established by this time and he was a willing and able debater on any political issues of the day. Such impressive accomplishments earned Rehnquist a prestigious 18-month clerkship in 1952-1953 with Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1953 he married Natalie Cornell, a fellow Stanford student.

Republican Activist and Assistant U.S. Attorney General

After completing his clerkship, the Rehnquists moved to Phoenix, Arizona, a city noted for its conservative bent. Once there, Rehnquist established a private practice and became increasingly involved in Republican politics. He soon achieved prominence and in 1958 was chosen as a special Arizona state prosecutor involved in bringing charges against several state officials accused of state highway frauds. He publicly opposed a number of legislative initiatives over the years, including one that would institute busing to achieve racial integration of the schools.

Rehnquist associated with conservative Senator Barry Goldwater and Richard G. Kleindienst, and who served as chairman of the state party and as national field director for the presidential campaigns of Goldwater in 1964 and Richard M. Nixon in 1968. Among the liberals he targeted for criticism during this period were Justices Earl Warren, William O. Douglas, and Hugo L. Black, whom he termed "left-wing philosophers" of the Supreme Court, accusing them of "making the Constitution say what they wanted it to say."

Following his election in 1968, Nixon appointed Kleindienst as deputy attorney general. Kleindienst then chose Rehnquist as assistant attorney general responsible for the Office of Legal Counsel. During his two and a half years at the Justice Department Rehnquist turned what had been an obscure position into a focus of publicity and a target for criticism from liberals and Democrats. Among other controversial positions, Rehnquist defended the constitutionality of the president's policies in Indochina, Nixon's orders barring disclosure of certain government documents, and the mass arrest of peaceful demonstrators. He strongly supported the administration's stringent law-and-order program, including "no-knock" entries, pretrial detention, wire tapping, and electronic surveillance, and repeatedly stated the view that the Supreme Court had been too vigilant in defending the rights of the accused. Such positions were consistent with Nixon's desire to appoint "judicial conservatives" to the Supreme Court, and the president nominated Rehnquist and Lewis F. Powell, Jr., a noted Virginia lawyer, to be associate justices on October 21, 1971.

A Conservative on the Supreme Court

A few liberal senators opposed Rehnquist, but after he softened his law-and-order image and admitted having acquired a more sympathetic attitude toward civil rights, he was confirmed. Rehnquist and Powell then filled the seats on the Court vacated by Justices Hugo L. Black and John M. Harlan.

Rehnquist was easily the most conservative member of the Warren Court. He joined a tribunal that was just beginning to reconcile years of judicial activism maintained under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren with a more restrained approach to decisions symbolized by the new chief, Warren Burger. Even though Nixon had tried to fill the Court with "judicial conservatives," no radical shift to the right immediately occurred. Instead, the Court pursued an uneven course, sometimes adhering to a conservative position, at other times to a liberal one. There was, however, never a doubt about where Rehnquist stood. When the Court in Roe v. Wade (1973) overturned state laws against abortions, he dissented, arguing in favor of state power. Similarly, when the majority upheld bussing as a means to bring about desegregation in Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colorado (1973), Rehnquist wrote a stinging dissent. Often the only dissenter, he opposed school desegregation, women's rights, civil-service jobs for aliens, and health care for the poor, among others. Especially during the early years on the Court, his one-man dissents occurred so often that Rehnquist's law clerks presented him a Lone Ranger doll, referring to their boss as the "lone dissenter." He remained unpopular with liberals who argued that his unwavering support on such issues as states rights served to endorse blatant discrimination against minorities and women. Nevertheless, he was also recognized as an extremely intelligent and well organized addition to the Court, and some note that his lone dissents became important in later shaping majority decisions.

No decision illustrated better Justice Rehnquist's orientation than his remarkable decision in National League of Cities v. Usery (1976). The issue was whether the federal minimum-wage law applied to all state and local government employees. In an earlier case the majority of the Court had decided in favor of the federal government. Rehnquist alone had dissented, arguing against decades of opinions decided since the New Deal that the wage law violated state sovereignty. But in National League of Cities four justices accepted the reasoning of his previous dissent and Rehnquist wrote for a 5-4 majority that "this Court has never doubted that there are limits upon the power of Congress to override state sovereignty."

By the early 1980s Justice Rehnquist found himself more often in the majority. This occurred not because he changed, but because the Court did. With President Ronald Reagan's appointment of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981 Rehnquist and Chief Justice Burger gained a reliable third vote, which made it much easier to put together a majority whose views favored Rehnquist's views. Of 28 cases decided during the October 1984 term by a 5-4 vote, for example, the former "lone dissenter" was in the majority in 17. Slowly, the Court seemed to be shifting toward a discernibly conservative position more consistent with Rehnquist's views. Yet even so, the future was cloudy. Early in 1985 the Court overturned Rehnquist's National League of Cities opinion in Garcia v. San Antonio by a 5-4 vote.

When Chief Justice Burger resigned in 1986, President Reagan impressed with Rehnquist's intellect and conservative stances nominated him to be the nation's 16th chief justice, with Antonin Scalia named to the open associate justice slot. Liberals, and members of Congress who had long been at odds with Rehnquist were alarmed at the nomination. Allegations of past misdeeds (including a charge that he had harassed minority voters in Phoenix) were raised to try and thwart the confirmation, but nothing could stick in view of his years on the Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed both nominations.

Rehnquist proved an excellent administrator, lessening the Court's burgeoning case workload. Although he remained one of the most conservative justices, he also maintained a strong sense of independence. He had to endure charges that his opinions reflected his own personal politics more than actual judicial philosophy. However, when examined, it was noted that he often stood with the majority even if it crossed the established Republican line. In Morrison v Olson (1988) he upheld Congress' right to appoint independent counsel to investigate and prosecute government officials, over the strenuous objects of the Reagan administration, who had been responsible for his appointment to the Supreme Court. In 1996, he clashed openly with Republicans over their criticism of President Clinton's judicial appointments. As Chief Justice, Rehnquist brought order to the court and won striking support for judicial restraint from his colleagues. His belief that any move to weaken judicial independence would only serve to undermine the effectiveness of the federal courts was the cornerstone of his tenure at the Court. In a 1996 speech he said "Change is the law of life, and judiciary will have to change to meet the challenges which will face it in the future. But the independence of the federal judiciary is essential to its proper functioning and must be retained." Rehnquist was a pillar of conservative judicial thought on the nation's highest court.

Further Reading on William Hubbs Rehnquist

The best treatment of Justice Rehnquist's role on the Supreme Court can be found in The Burger Court: The Counter-Revolution That Wasn't, Vincent Blasi, editor (1983). For Rehnquist's own views see his The Supreme Court: How It Was, How It Is (1987). An excellent article that covered both the course of Rehnquist's career and his ideas was "The Partisan: A Talk With Justice Rehnquist," by John A. Jenkins in New York Times Magazine (March 3, 1985). A specialized but nonetheless very good piece was Jeff Powell's "The Complete Jeffersonian: Justice Rehnquist and Federalism," The Yale Law Journal 91 (June 1982), which dealt especially with judicial theory and the National League of Cities opinion. Peter Iron's Brennan vs. Rehnquist: The Battle for the Constitution (1994) compared the conservative and liberal interpretations of the constitution and the courts. David Savage examined the rightward swing of the court in Turning Right: The Making of the Rehnquist Supreme Court Rehnquist's own views of the role of the federal judiciary can be found in a speech given May 1, 1996 in Vital Speeches May 1, 1996, p 418 The Future of the Federal Courts.