Rehnquist death leaves second vacancy
In decisions released at the end of the court's term last month, the chief justice was in the majority voting to allow the Christian symbol on public property, a decision Rehnquist himself read. But a divided court also ruled 5-4, with the chief justice dissenting, that displays of the commandments may not be installed inside courthouses. O'Connor was on the opposite side in both decisions, opposing the display in both venues.
Rehnquist's death brings to a close an era during which he presided over decisions that moved the court squarely into the conservative realm. But he had seen his influence wane in recent years as centrist Republican-appointed justices, most notably O'Connor, seized both the middle ground and much of the control in a divided court.
Still, there's no doubt that Rehnquist's influence was profound. Under his leadership, the court shifted power to the states by overturning more than 30 laws passed by Congress. It also relaxed judicial oversight of the death penalty, gave property owners more protection from environmental regulations, eased church and state boundaries, and limited punitive damage awards. And in 2000, in its most controversial decision, the Rehnquist court made George W. Bush president. "There is not an area of the law where he hasn't had an impact," says Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke University law professor.
Rehnquist also presided over the history-making 1999 Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, showing up in an eyebrow-raising black robe embellished with four golden bands on each armhis nod to the Lord Chancellor's costume from a favorite Gilbert and Sullivan production.
The seeds of the Rehnquist years were planted in 1971 during an inauspicious meeting with President Richard Nixon. Known for his sartorial flourishes even then, Rehnquist, an assistant U.S. attorney general, wore a pink shirt and psychedelic tie to the meeting, accented by his then-trademark muttonchop sideburns, former Rehnquist clerk Richard Garnett, now a Notre Dame University law professor, wrote in a recent tribute to his former boss. After the meeting, Garnett says, Nixon pronounced that "Renchberg" looked like a "clown."
Despite the wardrobe malfunction, Nixon turned to the 47-year-old Rehnquist to help carry out a campaign pledge to remake the liberal Warren Court that had consolidated federal power. On January 7, 1972, Rehnquist joined the court and set about attempting to undo much of the previous court's work, which included the expansion of civil rights protections and the Miranda decision guaranteeing that persons arrested be informed of their right to counsel.
But during Rehnquist's first 14 years on the court as an associate justice, the conservative counter-revolution never got off the ground. The most conservative justice on the court, Rehnquist was in the minority so often he was tagged with the nickname "Lone Ranger" for voicing a view of limited federal power that many at the time considered out of touch. Often outvoted 8-1 he was joined by one justice in opposing Roe v Wade, which in 1973 established abortion rights. He also argued for prayer in school and limits to school desegregation requirements. His dissenting ideas, however, would prove influential in later opinions.