From Lone Ranger to Real Leader

Quiet but effective, William Rehnquist changed the direction of American law.

November/December 2005

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From Lone Ranger to Real Leader

Shepard Sherbell/Corbis

With the afternoon sun streaming through his office window and onto his neck, Bill Rehnquist leaned back in his chair and perched his feet on the desk. The awestruck young man sitting before him wondered whether the Supreme Court justice was always this nonchalant.

“He had a small glass on his desk,” recalls Michael Eagan, JD ’74, who landed the 1976 clerkship with Rehnquist for which he was interviewing that day. “I couldn’t tell if it was Jack Daniels in his glass, but I thought, hey, maybe that’s how they do it in Washington.”

As he came to know Rehnquist, Eagan became more impressed and less intimidated by the justice. Rehnquist regularly inquired about Eagan’s family; the clerk occasionally brought his preschool-aged daughter into the justice’s chambers to color on the floor while they worked. And as it turned out, that afternoon drink was not quite as stiff as Eagan first thought—Rehnquist always served his clerks apple juice and vanilla wafers.

Although the public saw him as stoic and reserved, those who knew Rehnquist credit his affable manner for helping him lead the court for 19 years as chief justice. A conservative who nudged the court to the right, he helped energize debate about the limits of federal power. During his 33-year tenure—one of the longest in the court’s history—Rehnquist presided over the impeachment trial of one president and the disputed election of another. Through it all, he kept a low profile and an unpretentious style. “I don’t think he’d want to be known as someone who reshaped this or changed that, just someone who went to work and did his job the best he could with all the energy he could put into it,” Eagan says.

Diagnosed with thyroid cancer in October 2004, Rehnquist continued to work and defied expectations that he would retire after the court’s 2005 session. He died in his home in Arlington, Va., on September 3. He was 80 years old.

Born in 1924 in Milwaukee, Wis., Rehnquist was the son of two conservative Republicans. His father was a wholesale paper salesman and his mother a freelance French translator. His paternal grandparents had immigrated to the Chicago area from Sweden.

Rehnquist was drafted into the Army in 1943 and served for three years as a sergeant in North Africa. Upon returning home, the 21-year-old entered Stanford on the G.I. Bill. Two years later, he had earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in political science and membership in Phi Beta Kappa.

While working as an RA in the summer of 1951, Rehnquist met Natalie “Nan” Cornell, an undergraduate who was attending summer school. After he graduated from the Law School—first in his class—Rehnquist went to Washington, D.C., in early 1952 to serve as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson. Cornell, ’51, moved to Washington as well, working for the CIA. The couple married in 1953 and moved to Phoenix, where Rehnquist established his law practice. They had three children, James, Janet and Nancy, all of whom survive. Natalie died in 1991.

Janet says he insisted on balancing his home life with his work. “He was a very involved father when that really wasn’t done,” she says. “He really lived that—though it was sort of easy for him to be that way since it would take him an hour to do what it would take most people all day to do [at work].”

Rehnquist was active in the Republican Party in Arizona, and when Sen. Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964, Rehnquist served as a legal adviser. Four years after Goldwater’s campaign, he earned the attention of President Richard Nixon, who named him assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department.

Nixon appointed Rehnquist to the Supreme Court in 1971. The nation’s 102nd justice, at the age of 47, Rehnquist soon demonstrated the independence that would become his hallmark. Five months after he joined the court, he went against the majority decision to strike down the death penalty, and one year later, he wrote a dissenting opinion in Roe v. Wade. By the time President Ronald Reagan nominated him to be the nation’s 16th chief justice in 1986, Rehnquist was known among law clerks at the court as the “Lone Ranger” for his frequent solo dissents.

Fueled in part by Reagan’s other appointments, the court gradually tilted toward Rehnquist’s conservative views on constitutional matters. Even before he rose to chief justice, he was a skilled administrator and careful strategist, Eagan recalls. “Instead of saying, ‘Go read the 14th Amendment and write me a footnote on it,’ Rehnquist would say, ‘How are we going to get [Justice Byron] White’s vote on this?’ or ‘Go play basketball with White’s clerks and see what they’re saying.’ He was attuned to the political nature [of the court] and what was going on with the other folks there.”

In the 1997 case Washington v. Glucksberg—in which the court decided against a “right to die”—Rehnquist’s written opinion not only reflected his unwavering confidence in federalism, but also illustrated his leadership on the court, which voted unanimously. “Throughout the nation, Americans are engaged in an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality and practicality of physician-assisted suicide,” he wrote. “Our holding permits this debate to continue, as it should in a democratic society.”

Twice late in his career, Rehnquist sat at the center of constitutional crises that helped determine the future of a presidency. In 1999, he presided over Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, and in 2000 he voted with the 5 to 4 majority to halt the recount of Florida ballots in the presidential election, confirming the victory of George W. Bush.

Through it all, Rehnquist retained the same down-to-earth Midwestern personality. Eagan recalls one evening when President Jimmy Carter was set to give the State of the Union address and he and Rehnquist were still at work despite the clamor on Capitol Hill. “There were lots of parties going on and limos driving around. He came in and said, ‘I gotta go to this thing—wanna get a burger first?’ And we went out to eat and talked about the Washington Redskins.

“As a friend and as a person, I think he succeeded mightily,” Eagan says. “There are a few people, the better you get to know them, the more you love them—he’s that guy.”

STEPHANIE CONDON, ’05, a former Stanford intern, is pursuing a journalism career.

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