Reagan's Mr. Right

Rehnquist is picked for the court's top job

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The Justice is a lively and facile writer whose literate prose stands out on a court undistinguished by the eloquence of its opinions. In one dissent he borrowed from Gilbert and Sullivan to twit his colleagues for arrogating too much power to the federal courts: "The law is the true embodiment/ Of everything that's excellent/ It has no kind of fault or flaw/ And I, my Lords, embody the law."

Unlike some of his colleagues who agonize over each opinion and stagger under the court's case load, Rehnquist is known for quickness and efficiency. On most days he leaves the court at 3 p.m. to go swimming. He finds time for stamp collecting and oil painting (indeed, he skipped the President's State of the Union speech last February to go to his painting class in Arlington, Va.). He once even tried his hand at writing a novel about the intrigues of a federal appeals court in the Southwest (it was rejected by several publishers). At times Rehnquist has appeared slightly bored with the insular routine of the high court. Two years ago, to "refresh" himself, he sat as a judge on a two-day jury trial in federal district court in Richmond, a highly unusual move for a sitting Justice.

Witty and relaxed, Rehnquist gets on well with the other Justices and their staffs. Clerks from other chambers sometimes invite him out to a local pub for beer and burgers, and he invites his former clerks to his house in Arlington to challenge them at croquet. A rumpled dresser, he prefers Wallabees and sweaters to wing tips and pinstripes.

Rehnquist's easy manner and informality stand in stark contrast to his predecessor as Chief Justice. Burger could be courtly, but mainly he was pompous and aloof. There is little doubt which Justice is more popular with his brethren.

Personal charm and amiability are hardly trivial considerations for a Justice who wants to influence the court. The Chief Justice is merely first among equals on a court that Justice Powell once described as "nine one-man law firms." To sway his sometimes fiercely independent colleagues, a chief must be both intellectually forceful and collegial.

Burger, by almost all accounts, was seldom either. In part this was because he was distracted. Burger liked to remind reporters that he was Chief Justice of the U.S., not of just the Supreme Court, and more than any other chief he worked to improve the somewhat rickety administration of the federal courts. His great ambition, which he never realized, was to create a "super court" of appeals to siphon off some of the burgeoning case load of the Supreme Court.

The Chief Justice has only one real institutional prerogative. When he is in the majority, he can assign the task of writing the opinion. If he is in the minority, then the most senior Justice in the majority assigns the opinion. The opinion-assigning power is important, particularly when the court is narrowly divided, because the Justice who writes the court's opinion can set the terms of the debate. Burger repeatedly irked his colleagues by changing his vote to remain in the majority, and by rewarding his friends with choice assignments and punishing his foes with dreary ones. "Rehnquist is too intellectually honest to do this," says a former Brennan clerk. For Rehnquist the real question is whether he can be flexible enough to win over less dogmatic conservatives.

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