William Rehnquist

William Rehnquist was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon in 1971. He was elevated to the post of chief justice by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. He remained chief justice until his death in 2005.


Born in Wisconsin in 1924, William Rehnquist became chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1986. After 1989, when a "new right" majority had been established by President Reagan, Rehnquist framed a series of conservative rulings on abortion, affirmative action and capital punishment. During his tenure as chief justice, Rehnquist also presided over the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton and the Bush v. Gore election decision. He died in 2005 in Virginia.

Early Life and Career

Born on October 1, 1924, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, William Donald Rehnquist was the son of a paper salesman, and briefly attended Kenyon College in Ohio before serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. He never saw any combat; he was stationed in North Africa as a weather observer.

After the war ended, Rehnquist received a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in political science from Stanford University. He went on to receive a master's in government from Harvard University and a law degree from Stanford Law School. He graduated at the top of his class in 1952—his future colleague Sandra Day O'Connor was third in that same class at Stanford.

From 1952 to 1953, Rehnquist worked as a law clerk for Justice Robert H. Jackson. During that time, he wrote a controversial memo that defended the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which supported the separate-but-equal approach to segregation. Rehnquist later claimed the memo reflected Justice Jackson's views and not his own. From 1953 to 1969, Rehnquist was in private practice in Phoenix and became active in the Republican Party. He returned to Washington in 1968 after President Richard Nixon took office.

Rehnquist served as assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel from 1969 to 1971. In this capacity, he supported such controversial measures as pretrial detention and wiretapping, impressing President Nixon, who appointed him associate justice of the Supreme Court in 1971. But some civil rights leaders and members of Congress were less than enthusiastic about the potential new justice and grilled him on his past, including his memo on Plessy v. Ferguson. Despite being considered a right-wing extremist by his opponents, Rehnquist easily secured the majority of votes needed to approve his confirmation.

Supreme Court Justice

Rehnquist took his oath of office on January 7, 1972. He soon proved himself to be the most conservative of Nixon's appointees, voting against legalized abortion in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Rehnquist was one of the two dissenters in that famous case. Over the years, he earned the nicknames "Lone Ranger" and "Lone Dissenter" for his willingness to vote in line with his own political and legal beliefs. To this end, Rehnquist voted against school desegregation and in favor of school prayer, capital punishment and states' rights.

When Chief Justice Warren Burger retired in 1986, President Ronald Reagan nominated Rehnquist to fill the position, and the Senate confirmed his appointment 65-33. His associate justice seat was filled by Antonin Scalia. After 1989, when a "new right" majority had been established by President Reagan, Rehnquist framed a series of conservative rulings on abortion, affirmative action and capital punishment.

During his tenure as chief justice, Rehnquist scored a victory against the federal government in the 1995 decision in the United States v. Lopez case. The court ruled that a federal act that had made it unlawful to carry a gun in a school zone was unconstitutional. Rehnquist made headlines a few years later when he served as the presiding judge in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. In 2000, he was one of the supporters of the Supreme Court decision that ended the fight to recount contested votes in Florida in that year's presidential election in the Bush v. Gore case. Although he was expected to push the Supreme Court in a more conservative direction during his tenure, the Rehnquist court specifically declined to overrule Roe v. Wade and Miranda v. Arizona.

Death and Legacy

On October 26, 2004, Rehnquist announced that he had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. He administered the oath of office to President George W. Bush at his second inauguration in January 2005, but the illness was apparently taking its toll on the chief justice. He was largely absent from the bench, but refused to resign. Rehnquist remained in office until his death on September 3, 2005. He was survived by his three children, James, Janet and Nancy. His wife Nan died in 1991.

Rehnquist was a lifelong Lutheran, and his funeral was attended by many politicians and judicial officials. Chief Justice John Roberts, a former Rehnquist clerk and Rehnquist's replacement on the court, served as one of the pallbearers. Sandra Day O'Connor and President George W. Bush were among the speakers at the service. Bush remarked, "In every chapter of his life, William Rehnquist stood apart for his powerful intellect and clear convictions."

In his 33 years on the Supreme Court, Rehnquist left his mark on the country's legal system. He was a man on a mission during his time as an associate justice, and as the chief justice he upheld his decidedly conservative views. A longtime critic of Rehnquist, lawyer Alan Dershowitz, described the late justice as "a man who made his career undermining the rights and liberties of American citizens," according to the Huffington Post website. John A. Jenkins, author of The Partisan: The Life of William Rehnquist, expressed a different take on Rehnquist's career. "Whatever you think of Rehnquist the man, you have to give him credit for sticking to an agenda, sticking to his guns and standing up for what he very passionately believed," Jenkins told CNN.

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