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William Hubbs Rehnquist

William Hubbs Rehnquist was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 and was elevated to the position of chief justice in 1986. A political and judicial conservative, Rehnquist has consistently sought to limit the power of the federal government to intervene in areas that are traditionally left to the states.

Rehnquist was born on October 1, 1924, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1943, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and served until 1946. He then took advantage of the GI BILL to attend college at Stanford University. After graduating in 1948 with both a bachelor's and a master's degree, Rehnquist earned a second master's degree in political science from Harvard University in 1949. He then attended Stanford University Law School, where he finished first in his 1952 graduating class.

Rehnquist then served as a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice ROBERT H. JACKSON. It was during the 1952 term that the Court first

William H. Rehnquist.

heard arguments on the constitutionality of state-segregated public education. In a memorandum to Jackson that would come back to haunt him at his judicial confirmation hearings, Rehnquist argued for upholding the SEPARATE BUT EQUAL doctrine contained in PLESSY V. FERGUSON, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256 (1896).

After he left his judicial clerkship in 1953, Rehnquist relocated to Phoenix, Arizona, where he joined the state bar and entered private practice. In 1958, he served as a special state prosecutor, bringing charges against several state highway officials who were accused of FRAUD. During his years of practice, he specialized in civil litigation.

Rehnquist's path to the U.S. Supreme Court began in Arizona REPUBLICAN PARTY politics of the 1950s. Under the leadership of U.S. Senator BARRY M. GOLDWATER, the party became the dominant force in Arizona government, espousing a political view that was more rigid and doctrinaire than that of the national Republican party. Rehnquist became active in the party and made the acquaintance of RICHARD G. KLEINDIENST, an attorney who chaired the state Republican Party and who was a close adviser to Goldwater. Kleindienst served as Rehnquist's political mentor and involved him in the 1964 presidential election that Goldwater lost to President LYNDON B. JOHNSON.

In 1968, Kleindienst worked on RICHARD M. NIXON's presidential campaign. After Nixon was elected, he appointed Kleindienst to be deputy attorney general. Kleindienst in turn recommended Rehnquist for the position of assistant attorney general in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel in the U.S. JUSTICE DEPARTMENT. Attorney General JOHN N. MITCHELL was initially reluctant to hire Rehnquist, but, after interviewing him, Mitchell became convinced that Rehnquist was the right person for the job.

As head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Rehnquist supplied legal advice to all of the departments of the federal government. He also became one of the most stalwart defenders of the Nixon administration's policies. He supported PREVENTIVE DETENTION and the administration's authority to order WIRETAPPING and surveillance without a court order. He also agreed that the EXCLUSIONARY RULE in criminal cases should be abolished. This rule excludes evidence that the police have seized illegally.

In 1971, President Nixon nominated Rehnquist to the U.S. Supreme Court. Senate Democrats, concerned about Rehnquist's conservative philosophy and his actions as a member of the Nixon administration, sought to defeat the nomination. They used Rehnquist's memorandum supporting the upholding of Plessy as evidence that he was hostile to CIVIL RIGHTS. Despite these efforts, Rehnquist was easily confirmed.

Rehnquist joined a Court that was headed by Chief Justice WARREN E. BURGER. At the time of his appointment, the Court still had a liberal majority. Rehnquist immediately became the most conservative member of the Court. When the Court ruled in ROE V. WADE, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973), that a woman had the right to an ABORTION, Rehnquist dissented. He has remained consistently opposed to abortion but has never found enough votes to overturn Roe.

As justices retired or died during the 1970s and early 1980s, more conservative justices were appointed to the Court. Rehnquist's views on FEDERALISM began to be adopted by his colleagues. The concept of federalism concerns the distribution of power to the states and the federal government. Until the coming of FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT's NEW DEAL in the 1930s, states had much more power over regulating day-today life than the federal government did. The liberal WARREN COURT of the 1960s greatly expanded the right of Congress to regulate economic and other societal activities.

By the late 1970s, Rehnquist helped convince a majority of the Court to begin to pull back from the idea that the federal government, which included the federal courts, could intrude into areas that traditionally were left to the states. In National League of Cities v. Usery, 426 U.S. 833, 96 S. Ct. 2465, 49 L. Ed. 2d 245 (1976), Rehnquist held that the COMMERCE CLAUSE of the U.S. Constitution did not give Congress the power to extend federal MINIMUM WAGE and overtime standards to state and local governments.

Rehnquist wrote decisions that restricted the power of a federal court to oversee the reform of a police department (Rizzo v. Goode, 423 U.S. 362, 96 S. Ct. 598, 46 L. Ed. 2d 561 [1976]); prohibited construing nineteenth-century federal civil rights laws to allow AFFIRMATIVE ACTION (General Building Contractors v. Pennsylvania, 458 U.S. 375, 102 S. Ct. 3141, 73 L. Ed. 2d 835 [1982]); and prevented plaintiffs from collecting government benefits that had been wrongfully withheld by state governments (Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 94 S. Ct. 1347, 39 L. Ed. 2d 662 [1974]).

In cases involving CRIMINAL LAW and procedure, Rehnquist has consistently sided with law enforcement. In Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 103 S. Ct. 2317, 76 L. Ed. 2d 527 (1983), he crafted a new rule that made it easier for police to obtain a warrant on the basis of an informant's tip. He supported the creation of a "good faith" exception to the exclusionary rule (United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 104 S. Ct. 3405, 82 L. Ed. 2d 677 [1984]) and has upheld the constitutionality of pretrial detention (United States v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739, 107 S. Ct. 2095, 95 L. Ed. 2d 697 [1987]). Rehnquist has also been a consistent defender of the constitutionality of the death penalty and a consistent critic of lengthy and repetitive death penalty appeals based on the writ of HABEAS CORPUS.

In civil rights cases, Rehnquist has sought to tie affirmative action to specific discriminatory conduct against the plaintiffs, rather than to past societal wrongs. He did, however, write the majority opinion in Meritor Savings Bank, Federal Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 106 S. Ct. 2399, 91 L. Ed. 2d 49 (1986), which applied Title VII of the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000a et seq.) to SEXUAL HARASSMENT on the job. An employer may be held liable if a "hostile work environment" is created where sexual harassment takes place.


In 2000, Rehnquist wrote the lead opinion in BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA V. DALE, 530 U.S. 640, 120 S. Ct. 2446, 147 L. Ed. 2d 554 (2000), where the Court held that applying a New Jersey public-accommodation law to require the Boy Scouts to admit homosexuals violated the FIRST AMENDMENT. The case had been watched closely by GAY AND LESBIAN RIGHTS advocates. Some

commentators suggested that Rehnquist and the majority had relied too heavily on tradition in making the ruling. However, others maintained that the decision was consistent with others in First Amendment JURISPRUDENCE.

In recognition of Rehnquist's record on the Court, President RONALD REAGAN nominated him in 1986 to succeed Chief Justice Burger. Again, there was some opposition to his nomination, but he was easily confirmed.

Although Presidents Ronald Reagan and GEORGE H. W. BUSH appointed conservatives to the Court after Rehnquist became chief justice, the Rehnquist Court has maintained a moderate course. Justices SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR, DAVID H. SOUTER, and ANTHONY M. KENNEDY, who have moderately conservative views, have resisted calls from Rehnquist and Justices ANTONIN SCALIA and CLARENCE THOMAS to overturn Court precedents, including Roe v. Wade.

Rehnquist presided over the Senate IMPEACHMENT trial of President BILL CLINTON during January and February 1999. He assumed the role based on Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution, which provides that the chief justice shall preside when the president of the United States is tried, but it offers no guidance as to what the chief justice's role should be. Clinton's impeachment marked the second time in U.S. history that a chief justice has presided over the impeachment trial of a president. Rehnquist shares this distinction with his predecessor, SALMON P. CHASE, who presided over the 1868 trial and subsequent acquittal of President ANDREW JOHNSON.

Rehnquist modeled the Senate proceedings after the 1868 trial. The trial little resembled a typical courtroom trial because the chief justice's authority was rigidly circumscribed. The rules mandated that senators sit mute through the trial. Only Rehnquist could ask questions upon the written request of the senators. He had the authority to decide questions of procedure and admissibility of evidence, but the Senate had the power to overturn any ruling by a simple majority vote. Rehnquist was not called upon to rule on any evidentiary issues, nor was he asked to decide what questions a witness could be asked.


Belsky, Martin H., ed. 2002. The Rehnquist Court: A Retrospective. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Rehnquist, William H. 2001. The Supreme Court. New York: Knopf.

Schwartz, Herman, ed. 2002. The Rehnquist Court: Judicial Activism on the Right. New York: Hill and Wang.

Yarbrough, Tinsley E. 2000. The Rehnquist Court and the Constitution. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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