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September 04, 2005

William H. Rehnquist, R.I.P.

Chief Justice Rehnquist died yesterday of thyroid cancer at age 80. You can get a broad but annoyingly biased overview of his life here, in the Washington Post's page one story. (For example, the Post article states that "[a]lone among the justices, Rehnquist said in 1983 that Bob Jones University had a legal right to exclude black students from its campus." The issue was not whether BJU had a right to exclude black students; it was whether the IRS had the legal authority to deny a tax exemption to the school, which otherwise qualified for the exemption, based on the school's racial bias.)

Rehnquist served 18 years as Chief Justice of the United States, and a lot of people's views of him are based on extraneous matters, like his showing up at the Clinton impeachment trial in a robe modeled on that of the Lord Chancellor in Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe. He accomplished a great deal as Chief Justice, in many ways improving the administration of justice from the rather chaotic approach of his predecessor.

But those of us who were in law school when Rehnquist was only an Associate Justice have a more vivid memory of him as a principled and lonely defender of an approach to law that had been all but turned on its head during the Warren Court. Rehnquist got the nickname "Lone Ranger" by filing solo dissents and refusing to go along with much of the legal doctrine then prevailing. (It goes almost without saying that Rehnquist was the target of a disproportionate number of barbs in the law school show, a comedy written by students. Students today have a larger number of targets.)

Rehnquist was one of four justices appointed by Richard Nixon and the only one who even came close to accomplishing Nixon's goal of reversing the Warren Court's creations, particularly in the area of criminal law. Of the other nominees -- Burger, Powell, and Blackmun -- only Burger showed any interest in that, and all three were mediocre at best. This is a history that George Bush should immerse himself in as he chooses a successor to the worthy William Rehnquist.