The Legacy of Chief Justice Rehnquist: A View from the Small Screen

Article excerpt

Over the course of his many years at the helm of the federal judiciary, the Chief was reported infrequently, inconsistently, and incompletely by the major networks; nevetheless, when he was reported, the reports did expose the public to his myriad accomplishments as one of the most powerful political figures of the last two decades.

It has been three years since Chief Justice Rehnquist passed away, marking the end of 19 years at the helm of the U.S. Supreme Court. In anticipation of his resig- nation, and then after his death, many scholars and other observers remarked on his personal impri- matur on the Court as well as the legacy of the Rehnquist Court more generally.1 While there is some debate about the strength, durability, and desirability of his legacy,2 there is little disagreement that Rehnquist-and the Court during his tenure-was a powerful force in American constitutional law.

The most visible of Rehnquist's accomplishments were his efforts to change the substance of judicial decision making. Among his goals was to curb what he considered the excesses of the Warren Court, particularly in the area of criminal justice, and in this he was quite successful.3 Additionally, his efforts to limit the expansion of individual rights, check First Amendment protections, enhance federal judicial power, and strengthen the position of the state vis-à-vis the national government, have led to claims that he, "must be counted as one of the giants of American law, because he has presided over and greatly contributed to a Supreme Court that has radically revised previous understandings of the Constitution."4

Less visible, but no less significant, were the Chiefs administrative accomplishments. By all accounts, he managed the work of the Supreme Court in an efficient yet collegial way.5 He wore several hats, not least among them presiding officer of the Judicial Conference with its vast responsibilities for the federal judiciary-including oversight of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts and the development and promotion of policy goals for the federal courts.

Additionally, he made appointments to specialized judicial panels; most notable were those appointing independent counsels and reviewing Department of Justice applications for foreign intelligence surveillance. His administration of these duties, however politically complicated and highly charged, was met largely with die same positive assessments he received for his various other responsibilities.6 The general consensus is diat Rehnquist was effective and fair, a very successful leader of the Third Branch.

It is in the context of this considerable attention to his multidimensional accomplishments as Chief Justice that I offer an additional perspective on the Rehnquist legacy, one that emphasizes the connection between his efforts on and behind the Bench to the public he served. Informed observers and scholars may have seen Rehnquist as a "giant" of American law, but what did the American public see of him during his tenure as Chief? The simple answer is expected: not much. But, this trite response hides a more complex story about the exposure the public had to the myriad accomplishments of one of the most powerful political figures of the last two decades.

Network news coverage

To present this story, I examine the national evening news coverage of Rehnquist by ABC, CBS, and NBC during the 19 years he served as Chief. At least two important questions arise from the study of nationally televised news. First, does anyone watch? The answer is yes, and often. Despite conventional wisdom that the Internet has achieved primacy over (or at least rivals) traditional sources of news, Gallup polling data as recent as December 2006 indicates that more than a third of Americans watch the network evening news programs every day.7 Additionally, as a daily news source, the same proportion of respondents rank these news programs third (among ten sources of news), only after local television news and local newspapers. …