Reagan's Mr. Right

Rehnquist is picked for the court's top job

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When William Rehnquist was appointed to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon in 1971, he believed that the court was "heeling" to the left and felt obliged, as he later put it, "to lean the other way." He was not much of a counterweight. The high court at the time was still dominated by liberals from the Earl Warren era, and Rehnquist often found himself in lonely dissent against the Justices' rulings upholding the constitutional rights of blacks, women and the poor. Indeed, Rehnquist was on the short end of so many 8-to-1 votes that his law clerks presented him with a small Lone Ranger doll, which still sits on the mantel in his chambers.

But William Rehnquist is the Lone Ranger no longer. To his brethren he will henceforth be known as "the chief." Last week President Reagan announced that Rehnquist will succeed Warren Burger, 78, who will step down after 17 years as the highest jurist in the land when the court's term ends next month. On the first Monday in October, when the nine Justices emerge from behind the red curtain to take the high bench, William Hubbs Rehnquist will become the 16th Chief Justice of the United States.

To fill Rehnquist's seat as an Associate Justice, the President picked Antonin Scalia, the son of an Italian immigrant, who has served since 1982 as a Reagan appointee on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Brilliant, engaging, tenacious and solidly conservative, Scalia (pronounced Skuh-lee-uh) will be a valuable ally for the new Chief Justice (who is already his crony in a floating monthly poker game in Washington) as well as a force on the court in his own right.

"This is the end of an era and the beginning of a new one," exulted Dan Popeo, general counsel of the conservative Washington Legal Foundation. "Judicial restraint is going to be fashionable." Liberals were downcast. The nominations of Rehnquist and Scalia "signal an effort by the President to impose his own narrow ideological views onto the Supreme Court," protested Julius Chambers, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Reagan's triple play will not, of course, transform the court overnight. By losing Burger and gaining Scalia, Reagan is in a narrow sense simply replacing one conservative with another. Nevertheless, Rehnquist, a shrewd intellect and popular figure on the court, promises to be a much more forceful leader than the plodding, standoffish Burger. "The Rehnquist-Scalia duo is infinitely more dynamic than the conservative wing was with Burger at the helm," says Constitutional Scholar Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School. "I would be extremely surprised if over the next several years the effect is not to push the court to the right considerably."

The Burger Court was a disappointment to conservatives. The six Justices appointed by three Republican Presidents from 1969 to 1981 failed to undo the extraordinary record of judicial activism compiled by the liberal Warren Court of the '60s.* Most galling to the right, the Burger Court gave women a constitutional right to abortion in 1973. Divided and unpredictable, the court was Burger's in name only. The most controversial cases were decided, often with confusing split opinions, by a shifting center of five or six Justices (see box).

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