William Hubbs Rehnquist was born in the midwestern state of Wisconsin in 1924. He was raised in a well-to-do household, where he embraced his parents' respect for leaders of the Republican Party. As a child, he had unusually lofty goals. He once told his public school teacher that his career plans were to "change the world."
As a teenager during World War II, he volunteered as a neighborhood civil defense officer, and later joined the Army Air Corp. He received degrees from both Stanford and Harvard Universities before earning his law degree at Stanford in 1952. He graduated first in his class and was known as an able debater with conservative views.
Later that year, he began his career as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at the Nuremburg trials. Following his 18-month clerkship, he practiced law, served as an Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice and became increasingly active in Republican politics. At the age of 47, in 1972, he was nominated by President Richard Nixon to the Supreme Court.
Attorney Tom Goldstein, who has argued more than a dozen cases before the Supreme Court says history will judge Chief Justice Rehnquist as the architect of the conservative revolution in the Supreme Court. Mr. Goldstein says Justice Rehnquist began to make an impact 30 years ago with opinions he wrote on states rights, affirmative action and the balance between church and state.
He was often the lone dissenter in those cases, Mr. Goldstein says, but his conservative views would eventually be shared by a majority. "The Chief Justice's path-breaking opinions when he was a new justice were in the 1970s, even in the early 1980s, were the things that he believed most strongly in, he tended to be in dissent because the court was much more liberal then. The Chief Justice's ideas hadn't taken hold. But what you can see, is instances in which he wrote dissents then and those positions are starting to take hold as the majority."
Mr. Goldstein adds, "He is responsible for the birth and growth of conservative legal thought in the country. He is a historic figure; it is what he will be remembered for, as one of the great Chief Justices. He administered the federal courts, has administered them very, very well. And on top of that he has caused a seismic shift in the way that we think about the law on issues that affect us every day."
He was not always able to persuade the Court to his point of view. As an associate justice, for example, he was in the minority in the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which made abortion legal. And in several cases brought before the Supreme Court during his tenure as Chief Justice, the Court continued to rule in favor of a woman's right to choose.
He was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to serve as the 16th Chief Justice in 1986. As Chief Justice, he often was able to forge a narrow majority that helped shift power away from the Federal government to the states. Among his majority opinions: a 1995 landmark decision on the rights of states in which he said that a federal law banning guns near schools was unconstitutional because the states, not Congress, had the power to control such activity. He also supported school vouchers, which allowed students to attend religious educational institutions using state funds.
In 1988, he supported the creation of an independent counsel, which eventually was used in the investigation of President William Jefferson Clinton. Eleven years later, in 1999, Chief Justice Rehnquist performed the unusual duty of presiding over the U.S. Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton. Mr. Clinton was acquitted.
After the disputed 2000 U.S. presidential election, Justice Rehnquist presided over the high court's hearing in the Bush v. Gore case, in which it was asked to decide whether votes in the southern state of Florida should be counted a second time. He backed the position of then-Texas governor and Republican Party candidate, George Bush, that the recount should be stopped. This, in effect, determined the election and made George Bush the 43rd President.
Chief Justice Rehnquist was a practiced student of history who authored several books on the history of the Supreme Court. Under his leadership, the Court ran efficiently and heard fewer cases each term than under previous Chief Justices.
According to Don Ayer, who worked for Justice Rehnquist during the 1976 term, although he expected a lot from his staff, there was no ceremony Don Ayers worked with Justice Rehnquist in 1976or formality, and his conservative public image concealed a very different private man.
"Behind the person who sits and presides on the Supreme Court, there is, you know a justice, who in chambers with his clerks and with the other justices, you know, is very down to earth and really a fun person with a great sense of humor," related Mr. Ayer.
An example… at the conclusion of President Clinton's impeachment trial, the Chief Justice reflected on the differences between presiding over a trial in the U.S. Senate and a trial in the Supreme Court. "I underwent the sort of culture shock that naturally occurs when one moves from the very structured environment of the Supreme Court, to what I shall call, for want of a better phrase, the more free-form environment of the Senate. (laughter) I leave you now a wiser, but not a sadder man."
A tracheostomy tube is seen in Chief Justice William Rehnquist's throat as he administers presidential oath to President Bush in JanuaryBut the seriousness with which Justice Rehnquist took his work can be seen in a favorite quote he reads from Justice Jackson, the man who first introduced him to the Supreme Court more than 53 years ago. "We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record in which history will judge us tomorrow."
After being diagnosed with thyroid cancer last fall, Mr. Rehnquist disappeared from public view for some time. In January, relying on a cane, he administered the oath of office to President George W. Bush during the swearing-in ceremony for the president's second term.
At the Supreme Court, Justice Rehnquist returned in the spring to writing legal opinions and participating in oral arguments.