Monday, Dec. 19, 2005

William Rehnquist

Friend of the Court
Elegant in prose and unpretentious in manner, William Rehnquist led the Supreme Court for nearly 19 years with a rare combination of efficiency and amiability that even liberal colleagues will miss. His harmonious tenure surprised some; in the 14 years he served as Associate Justice before becoming Chief Justice, Rehnquist authored a number of provocatively right-wing 8-to-1 dissents. (He even kept a Lone Ranger doll on his mantel.) Later, critics noted that Rehnquist abandoned his anti-federal, pro-state principles in Bush v. Gore, which barred Florida from recounting the ballots and gave the Republican Party the presidency. But Rehnquist didn't turn out to be a conservative votary. He often supported states' economic regulations, and as Chief Justice, he took precedent more seriously than ideology; in 2000, he personally wrote the opinion upholding Miranda — which requires cops to read suspects their rights — even though he had ridiculed the decision in the past. Miranda warnings, he respectfully noted, had become "part of our national culture." For the aging Rehnquist, who died in September of thyroid cancer, tradition weighed heavily.