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Supreme Court Justices

William Rehnquist (1924-2005)

William H. Rehnquist was born on October 1, 1924, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His parents were William B. and Margery (Peck) Rehnquist. He grew up in Shorewood, Wisconsin, a northern Milwaukee suburb. After service in World War II with the Army Air Corps from 1943-46, Rehnquist received a B.A. and M.A. from Stanford University in 1948. After obtaining an M.A. from Harvard University in 1950, Rehnquist returned to Stanford to attend its law school, graduating first in his class in 1952. (He actually completed his classes in December 1951, and began working in early 1952.) Current Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor also graduated near the top of that same graduating class.

After clerking for Justice Robert H. Jackson from February 1952 through the end of the October 1952 Term (June 1953), Rehnquist moved to Phoenix, Arizona to practice law in a law firm. He remained in Phoenix for 16 years. In 1969, after the election of President Richard Nixon, Rehnquist became a lawyer in Office of Legal Counsel, where he remained for two years. Within one week of one another in September 1971, Justices Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan, both suffering from terminal illnesses, retired. After the resignation of Abe Fortas in May 1969, Richard Nixon nominated a Southerner, Clement Haynsworth, to succeed Fortas. The Senate refused to appoint Haynsworth in November by a vote of 55-45. Nixon, determined to nominate a Southerner to replace Fortas (originally from Memphis), nominated G. Harrold Carswell, whose credentials and achievements were much less impressive than Haynsworth's. The Senate again defeated the nomination, this time by a vote of 51-45. Nixon's third choice, Minnesotan Harry Blackmun, was confirmed. Two years later, Nixon had another chance to nominate a Southerner, and to add a judicial (and political) conservative. Nixon nominated Lewis F. Powell of Richmond, Virginia to replace Black, and Rehnquist to replace Harlan. Rehnquist was questioned at Senate Judiciary Committee hearings about a memorandum he had written for Justice Jackson in 1952 concerning the then-pending case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The memorandum concluded that "separate but equal" (the standard in Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) was the correct constitutional standard. At his hearings, Rehnquist testified that the memo did not reflect his views, but the views of Justice Jackson, to be used at the conference of the Justices at which Brown would be discussed. His testimony was disputed by others (but supported privately by Justice William O. Douglas, the only member of the Court in 1971 who was on the Court in 1952), but the flap subsided, and Rehnquist was confirmed by a vote of 68-26. (Powell, the more moderate nominee, was confirmed by a vote of 89-1.)

As an Associate Justice, Rehnquist was not afraid to write a lone dissent in a number of 8-1 cases, resulting in his being called the "Lone Ranger." In general, Rehnquist considered the Warren Court (and Burger Court, in several respects) of being too "activist" in its decisionmaking, and urged greater judicial "restraint." He was active in policing the boundary between federal and state power, one that the Court had avoided since the constitutional crisis of 1937. Rehnquist opposed the Court's right to privacy developments, dissenting in Roe v. Wade (1973) and joining the majority in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986). He also was opposed to affirmative action.

At the end of the October 1985 Term (July 1986), Chief Justice Warren Burger retired. President Ronald Reagan nominated Rehnquist to take Burger's seat, and Antonin Scalia to take Rehnquist's seat as Associate Justice. The issue of Rehnquist's conservativism in the Court again arose, along with the disputed memorandum from 1952. The Senate eventually confirmed his appointment by a vote of 65-33. (Scalia, possibly more conservative than Rehnquist, was approved by a vote of 98-0.)

Chief Justice Rehnquist is well organized and politically adept. He has built consensus in numerous cases, and has rarely struck out on his own (Justice Scalia has taken on that role.) Rehnquist remains judicially and politically conservative, but has foregone past positions in favor of consensus. For example, although a longtime opponent to the constitutionalization of the doctrine in Miranda v. Arizona (1966)(holding that prior to police interrogation of a person in custody, warnings that statements by the person may be used against him or her must be given, the so-called Miranda warnings known by heart by most Americans through the magic of TV), he recently wrote the Court's opinion affirming (or re-affirming, depending on your point of view) the constitutional basis of Miranda. He also wrote the Court's opinion holding constitutional the Independent Counsel Act, passed in the wake of the Watergate Scandal. Morrison v. Olson (1988).

Chief Justice Rehnquist is a popular historian of the Court, author of three books on the history of the Court. The Supreme Court: How It Is, How It Was (1987), Grand Inquests (1992), and All the Laws But One: Civil Liberties in Wartime (paperback 2000) are informative, accessible books about the Court and the American legal system.

He married Natalie Cornell in 1953. She died in 1991. He died on September 3, 2005. They were the parents of three children.

Further reading: Sue Davis, Justice Rehnquist and the Constitution (1989).