© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist Dies at 80

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has died, ending a 33-year career on the Supreme Court.

A spokesman for the court said Rehnquist died at his home in suburban Washington, D.C., surrounded by his three children. He was 80.

Rehnquist's death is likely to spur a fierce confirmation battle over a successor, even as the Senate prepares to consider the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court to replace Sandra Day O'Connor.

There was widespread expectation that he would retire last fall, when he was diagnosed with a serious form of thyroid cancer and underwent a tracheostomy. But by December, he was back at the court, presiding over internal conferences. Rehnquist returned to the bench in March, presiding over the court's public sessions, and soon thereafter expressed his determination to remain on the bench.

Rehnquist served as chief justice for 19 years. But he was first appointed to the court as an associate justice by President Richard Nixon in 1972, before being promoted to chief justice by President Reagan in 1986. He went from being a lone conservative dissenter in his early days to a builder of conservative consensus as chief justice.

In his last two terms as chief justice, however, the conservative bulwark that he had worked so hard to build has faced challenges on critical issues, ranging from affirmative action and gay rights to national security. Those cases followed an illustrious career for a justice who gained the respect of fellow justices of all ideologies, many of whom regarded him as a fair and efficient administrator of the court.

William Hubbs Rehnquist was born into an affluent upper middle-class family in Milwaukee, Wis. After a stint in the Army during World War II, he attended Stanford University on the GI Bill, receiving a bachelor's and a master's degree, both in political science. Rehnquist then enrolled at Harvard University for a master's degree in government. He later returned to Stanford to attend law school, graduating first in a class in which Sandra Day O'Connor graduated third.

Rehnquist's initial appointment to the court and his promotion to chief were both mired in controversy. His confirmation hearings featured charges that as a lawyer in Arizona he had spearheaded an effort to challenge and intimidate black voters at the polls. He denied any impropriety, just as he denied ownership of the views expressed in a memorandum he wrote while a Supreme Court clerk in 1953 arguing that the court should uphold the constitutionality of segregated schools. Rehnquist said that his boss, Justice Robert Jackson, had asked him to write the memo, a contention that Jackson's biographer would later call absurd.

After first being named to the Supreme Court, Rehnquist dissented in many cases, often on issues that centered on religion, the powers of the states, women's rights, civil rights cases, and death penalty cases. In those days, he so frequently was the lone dissenter that at one point his law clerks presented him with a small Lone Ranger doll.

A decade later, however, Rehnquist was leading a conservative core that gained new members with almost every passing year. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the area of federal versus state power.

But there were also some surprises from the chief justice. In 2003, he wrote the court's opinion upholding 1993's Family and Medical Leave Act, a federal law guaranteeing up to 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave for all employees.

Rehnquist also authored the opinion upholding the independent counsel law, a decision that drew a scathing dissent from fellow conservative Antonin Scalia. In addition, he concurred when the court decided in 1996 to invalidate the men-only policy at Virginia Military Institute. And he wrote the court's 1986 decision declaring for the first time that sexual harassment on the job constitutes sex discrimination in violation of the civil rights law.

Even so, Rehnquist has long been regarded as the man who put together the conservative coalition that eroded much of what previous liberal courts had done. In doing so, his conservative majority struck down more federal laws than any court in memory, drawing criticisms from liberals that rivaled the charges of judicial activism that conservatives once leveled at the liberal Warren Court.

As chief, Rehnquist led a movement to speed the processing of the death penalty, prompting Congress to codify the court's decisions. He managed to cut back dramatically on affirmative action, though he lost the battle on college admissions.

Rehnquist's remarks often reflected what he might have called a long view of history, and he was a student of the high court's history himself, writing two books about it. As chief justice he presided over many landmark events in American history, from the Senate trial of President Bill Clinton after the House impeached him, to settling the hotly contested presidential election of 2000, a 5-4 decision that placed President Bush in the White House. Now it is left to President Bush to select a successor to the chief justice.

Produced by Maria Godoy. Researched by Katie Gradowski.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.