Reagan's Mr. Right

Rehnquist is picked for the court's top job

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After the Burger meeting, the President instructed Regan that all candidates to succeed the chief should be sitting Justices or federal judges with well- established judicial track records. The Reaganauts did not want to be rudely surprised. They were mindful that Dwight Eisenhower's choice of Chief Justice, Earl Warren, had seemed like a moderate Republican as Governor of & California and promptly turned out to be an innovative liberal as a jurist. A short list of half a dozen contenders was drawn up. It did not include any of Reagan's old political buddies, such as Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt and former Interior Secretary William Clark. The President's instructions had the effect of eliminating Attorney General Edwin Meese from consideration. Meese later insisted that he was not interested in joining the court, but his friends think he will be available for any future openings.

At first a tight little screening committee of Regan, Meese and White House Counsel Peter Wallison considered recommending Justice Sandra Day O'Connor as the new chief. She was Reagan's sole high-court appointee, and to name a woman as the nation's top judge would be a political masterstroke. But O'Connor, now in her fifth year on the court, was deemed too inexperienced. Reagan's aides may have also been disturbed because she seemed to show mild symptoms of the Earl Warren syndrome, lately developing a disconcerting streak of independence. In the last year or so, for instance, she voted for expanded libel protection for the press and against prayer in schools, contrary to Administration dogma.

There were no such ideological qualms about Rehnquist. On June 12 he was summoned to the White House for an interview with the President. Reagan got on well with the affable Justice, but the President was worried about Rehnquist's health. Five years ago Rehnquist was hospitalized to overcome an addiction to a powerful painkiller he had been taking for his chronically bad back. At the time, court employees noticed that Rehnquist's speech was slurred and that he seemed to be having mental lapses. In his interview with Reagan, however, Rehnquist volunteered that he had long since kicked his addiction and could offer a clean bill of health from his doctors. Somewhat to his aides' surprise, the President offered Rehnquist the job as Chief Justice then and there. Rehnquist did not hesitate: "It would be an honor," he replied.

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