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Mr. Dooley's old saw is that the Supreme Court follows the election returns, and indeed most courts have been reluctant to get too far out of line % with the national mood. In its groping but at times statesmanlike way, the Burger Court tried to balance disparate demands, to ride the confusing currents of its time. Yet once in a great while, the Supreme Court does more than merely reflect the national consensus; it helps shape it. In 1954, when the court handed down Brown vs. Board of Education, many Americans still accepted racial segregation. Today, because the Supreme Court ruled that separate was inherently unequal, integration is far more the norm. By serving as guardian of the victims of society, the Warren Court became a kind of conscience to the nation.
Presidents come and go regularly, but there have been only 15 Chief Justices in the past 200 years. Some have been nonentities, many mere caretakers. But a few--most notably John Marshall, Charles Evans Hughes and Earl Warren--have played a vanguard role in determining what justice and equality mean in an evolving democratic society. For better or worse, Justice Rehnquist has the vision and the sureness of purpose to redefine the Constitution radically. The question is whether, given his powers of persuasion and collegial style, he will be able, with the aid of his new associate Scalia, to win the struggle for the soul of the court.
FOOTNOTE: * In addition to Rehnquist, Nixon appointed Burger in 1969, Harry Blackmun in 1970 and Lewis Powell in 1971; Gerald Ford appointed John Paul Stevens in 1975; and Reagan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981.