William H. Rehnquist: A Life Lived Greatly, and Well

By Garnett, Richard W. | The Yale Law Journal, June 2006 | Go to article overview
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William H. Rehnquist: A Life Lived Greatly, and Well

Garnett, Richard W., The Yale Law Journal

On February 1, 1952, a young man recently graduated from the Stanford Law School, having just completed the long drive from Wisconsin in his 1941 Studebaker, reported for duty in Washington, D.C. as a law clerk to Justice Robert H. Jackson. It was, as the young lawyer would later put it, "a highly prized position; I was surprised to have been chosen for it, and I did not want to be late for the start of my work." (1)

I know the feeling. I was more than surprised, in June of 1995, when by-then-Chief Justice Rehnquist invited me to interview for a law clerk position in his chambers. And, I likewise approached my interview with "fear and trembling," all too aware that the opportunity owed much to "[a] large element of luck." (2) Later, the Chiefs incomparably able assistants, Janet Tramonte and Laverne Frayer, would needle me for arriving at the meeting such a mess. Fair enough: I can only imagine how obviously disheveled, in appearance and mind, I seemed (and was) as I waited outside the Chief's office, sweating badly from the combined effects of the humidity and my unfamiliar lawyer suit. (3)

Here is how the Chief remembered his interview with Justice Jackson:

   I met with Justice Jackson ..., and his pleasant and easygoing 
   demeanor at once put me at ease. After a few general questions 
   about my background and legal education, he asked me whether my 
   last name was Swedish. When I told him that it was, he began to 
   reminisce about some of the Swedish clients he had had while 
   practicing law in upstate New York before he had moved to 
   Washington. I genuinely enjoyed listening to the anecdotes, but 
   somehow I felt that I should be doing 
   more to make a favorable impression on him. He, however, seemed 
   quite willing to end the interview with a courteous thanks for my 
   having come by, and I walked out of the room sure that in the first 
   minutes of our visit he had written me off as a total loss. (4) 

In my own case, I remember the Chief greeting me casually--right on time--in short sleeves, and then showing me matter-of-factly around his chambers and the Court's conference room. We sat down in his office, decorated with Romantic landscapes on loan from the National Gallery and pictures of friends, family, and law clerks, and had what I'm sure he tried his best to make a friendly, relaxed conversation about my childhood in Alaska, his law practice in Arizona, hitchhiking strategies (we agreed that carrying a sign with a pleasant, responsible-sounding destination worked well), The Brethren, and the death penalty. I'd been warned that the Chiefs interviews did not last long, but when the Chief smiled and stood up after only ten minutes, I started working in my mind on a "it was great just to have the chance to meet him" speech. But then he remarked, seemingly off-handedly, that he thought Alaska might be the only state from which he had not hired a clerk. I remembered the role that a connection with Sweden--another cold place--had played in his own clerkship interview, and started to think that maybe I had a chance.

Now, of course, the point here is not that I happen to remember my own clerkship interview much the same way as the Chief remembered his. It is, instead, simply to recall that for many of us who knew, worked with, learned from, and cared about William Rehnquist, his unassuming manner, the care he took to put people at ease, and his evident desire to serve as a teacher and mentor, as well as judge and employer, are as salient in our memories of him as his reinvigoration of the "first principles" of our federalism, (5) his refocusing of Fourth Amendment doctrine on reasonableness, or his reminder that the "separation of church and state," properly understood, has as its aims limited government and the authentic freedom of religion, not a judicially enforced program of secularization.

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William H. Rehnquist: A Life Lived Greatly, and Well


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