A Tribute to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist

By Giuffra, Robert J., Jr. | Stanford Law Review, April 2006 | Go to article overview

A Tribute to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist


Giuffra, Robert J., Jr., Stanford Law Review


Over the past 230 years, the United States has had forty-three Presidents but just seventeen Chief Justices. For thirty-three years, fourteen years as an Associate Justice and nineteen as Chief Justice, William Hubbs Rehnquist changed the landscape of American law. As Chief, he was the leader of a Court majority that often adopted positions that he had staked out in dissenting opinions as an Associate Justice.

Most public figures in Washington closely read the daily newspapers in search of their names. Not William Rehnquist. When I clerked for the Chief during the 1988 Term, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times wrote opposing editorials about one of his opinions. I went to his office and asked him if he wanted to read the editorials. His response was telling: "Reading the newspapers to grade Supreme Court opinions is like predicting who will win a baseball game in the first inning."

In his spare time, the Chief was an accomplished historian; he authored four well-received books, including one on the impeachment trials of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson and another on the disputed election of 1876. (1) As an historian, I'm sure the Chief would say that it's too early to evaluate his tenure on the Supreme Court. But, at this point, the views of his colleagues on the Court are instructive.

Justice Thurgood Marshall called William Rehnquist "a great Chief Justice." (2) In 1987, Justice Brennan said that the new Chief has "just been a breath of fresh air. He's meticulously fair in assigning opinions. I can't begin to tell you how much better all of us feel ... and how fond all of us are of him personally." (3) When he died, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that the Chief was "the fairest, most efficient boss I have ever had. The Chief fostered a spirit of collegiality among the nine of us, perhaps unparalleled in the Court's history." (4) And, Justice John Paul Stevens, the Justice who served with him the longest, said that "William Rehnquist's independent, impartial, and dedicated leadership of the Supreme Court has been an inspiration to those of us privileged to serve with him--and to the entire Nation as well." (5)

The Chief was a self-made man. He was born on October 1, 1924. He grew up during the Great Depression in Shorewood, Wisconsin. His father was a first-generation Swedish-American. His mother, who spoke five languages, worked as a translator for several companies. He was Midwestern in sound and style: solid, direct, plain-spoken, and without pretense. He had little interest in the limelight. He appeared shy when he spoke to a large group, and he did not like a fuss to be made about him. He preferred quiet times with his family and friends over the Washington social whirl. He did not wear fancy clothes (preferring comfort), save for the gold bars he had embroidered to his judicial robes after seeing the costume of the Lord Chancellor in the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, Iolanthe.

After graduating from public high school, the future Chief Justice spent three years in the military during World War II as a weather observer in North Africa. Years later, he remained a student of weather patterns. He famously held oral argument at the Court when the rest of the federal government had a snow day. He used his G.I. benefits to attend Stanford, where he majored in political science and ran the breakfast program in the Stanford dining hall. He then took a test that indicated he might have some aptitude for law. That test certainly was right. He graduated at the top of his Stanford Law School class. In a closet in his chambers, he kept the most meticulous set of law school notebooks imaginable, with case after case carefully summarized and analyzed.

The future Chief Justice clerked for Associate Justice Robert Jackson, whom he revered. (6) When the Chief was a law clerk, the Supreme Court decided Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, (7) in which Justice Jackson wrote his famous concurring opinion on separation of powers, and first heard argument in Brown v. …

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