William Rehnquist, the Federalist

By The Monitor's View | The Christian Science Monitor, September 6, 2005 | Go to article overview

William Rehnquist, the Federalist


The Monitor's View, The Christian Science Monitor


Sitting on the high court for 33 years, more than half as chief justice, William Rehnquist might have easily expanded the Supreme Court's influence in society. But he tried to avoid that by upholding the idea that power lies in an individual's ability to remain self-governing, and that local governance is the safest power.

That he was working at the court nearly up to his passing on Saturday is a testament to his notion that individuals serve society more than society serves them.

As much as Americans have increasingly looked to Washington to solve problems, Rehnquist reminded them in his decisions that the basic wisdom of the American Revolution and the Constitution was to set boundaries on central power, and that federal authority especially should not be spread by judicial fiat.

His humility in avoiding an accumulation of power in the court was rare in the nation's capital. Congress and presidents often drift toward more power. The Supreme Court has often followed, using its unchecked authority impatiently to go beyond the Constitution in resolving a bad situation because legislators were too slow or unwilling to tackle it.

Rehnquist himself was not immune to that tendency. In 2000, he led a 5-4 majority of the court in setting aside the Florida Supreme Court's interpretation of that state's own election laws, effectively ending an escalating political train wreck over the Bush- Gore presidential race.

When he joined the court in 1972, after being appointed by President Nixon, Rehnquist was a lone voice in arguing for limits on federal authority over state autonomy. He saw that states can serve a vital national purpose as laboratories for solving social problems, even if the process can take years of democratic ferment. …

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