The Challenge of Supreme Court Biography: The Case of Chief Justice Rehnquist

By Schmidt, Christopher W. | Constitutional Commentary, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

The Challenge of Supreme Court Biography: The Case of Chief Justice Rehnquist


Schmidt, Christopher W., Constitutional Commentary


THE PARTISAN: THE LIFE OF WILLIAM REHNQUIST. By John A. Jenkins. (1) New York, N.Y.: Public Affairs. 2012. Pp. xxi + 330. $28.99 (cloth).

I. INTRODUCTION

The Partisan, a new biography of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist by John A. Jenkins, is a bad book. But it is a bad book that is worth engaging because it provides important information about its unquestionably important subject. (3) It is also worth engaging because its shortcomings, while pronounced, even egregious, in fact derive from challenges inherent in the enterprise of Supreme Court biography.

I pursue three goals in this review. First, I identify what is useful in The Partisan-, information, some new, some helpful elaborations of what was already known, which helps us better understand Chief Justice Rehnquist, the private man and the public jurist. Second, I examine what Jenkins is trying to do in this book and where he runs into problems. The most obvious flaw of this biography is its relentless tendentiousness. The author clearly dislikes Rehnquist, and he uses the biography as a vehicle for an extended, largely unpersuasive, ad hominem attack on his subject. But Jenkins' goal is not merely to criticize Rehnquist the jurist. It is to "unmask" (p. xix) Rehnquist, to conflate his personality and his judicial views and thereby reveal the core of the man. Jenkins, predictably, finds what he was looking for: a harsh, uncaring, and deeply conservative ideologue. But in the process he presents a version of Rehnquist that not only fails to align with certain known facts about the man, but also lacks the complex humanity of a fully drawn biographical subject. Finally, I argue that the problems that this particular book puts in high relief are in fact symptomatic of the genre of Supreme Court biography. My critique thus provides a platform to consider the unique obstacles faced by any biographer of a Supreme Court Justice.

II. WHAT WE LEARN ABOUT REHNQUIST

A. REHNQUIST AND THE CHALLENGE OF BIOGRAPHY

The life of any public figure might be divided into three categories. There is the public life. For a Supreme Court Justice this would include written opinions, public statements, information about relations with other Justices, and the like. There is the private life. This would include biographical information about the Justice's upbringing and education, relations with family and friends, activities and interests beyond the Court. And then there is the personal. This would include some difficult-to-define combination of personality, character, and self-identity. For the biographer, it is the reconstruction of this last, interior layer, what Judge Richard Posner has labeled the "essential self," (4) that pulls together, and gives meaning to, the various strands of the subject's life.

The measure of a great biography is its ability to present a compelling portrait of the subject, one in which public, private, and personal align into a singular, comprehensible identity--but one that is not so reduced that it loses the complexities and texture of the human being at the center of the study. The explanatory force of a biography lies in its ability to allow each of the three realms of the subject's life to bring insight to the others. This is where the unique value of a biographical approach to law is located: The biographer reshapes our understanding of the subject's public life in light of those elements of the subject's life that are less well known.

These considerations highlight why Rehnquist is a particularly difficult subject for the biographer. He insistently, even belligerently, resisted introspection. Rehnquist was a prolific author throughout his time on the Court, writing about a wide variety of topics, including the Court's history (5) and the challenges of judging and constitutional interpretation. (6) At one point he even drafted a novel about a judge and his clerk that clearly drew on his own experiences. …

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