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Rehnquist Leaves Conservative Legacy at Supreme Court

The chief justice of the United States, William Rehnquist, has died after 33 years on the U.S. Supreme Court. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone in Washington has more on the legacy Justice Rehnquist leaves behind on the high court.

William Rehnquist was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon and began his tenure on the high court in January of 1972.

In his early days on the court, Justice Rehnquist often found himself in the conservative minority. For example, he was on the losing side in the 1973 7-2 decision known as Roe Versus Wade, which legalized abortion.

In 1986, the late President Reagan nominated Justice Rehnquist to be chief justice. Over the next several years, he and other conservative nominees pushed the high court in a more conservative direction, which included more emphasis on the power of the individual states at the expense of the federal government.

Professor Stephen Wermiel has long studied the Supreme Court at the American University's Washington College of Law.

"And, he (Rehnquist) believed deeply that we were kind of misreading the structure of the original Constitution to give too much power to the national government at the expense of the states, and I think that will be a major part of his legacy," he explained. "He really has turned that issue around, so that he has forced Congress to have to think twice, or even three times, about whether it actually has the power to legislate in some areas of law, or whether there are particular areas or issues that really ought to be left to the states."

Another area where Justice Rehnquist left his mark was criminal law and the rights of those accused of crimes.

Once again, law professor Stephen Wermiel.

"I think he believed that the court had tipped the balance too far in favor of the constitutional rights of the accused and of convicted criminals. And I think that he has tried to lead the court in a direction of bringing some of what he would call some balance back to that."

In 1999, Chief Justice Rehnquist had the opportunity of presiding over only the second presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history. It was his responsibility to announce that the Senate had acquitted former President Clinton on the impeachment charges, allowing Mr. Clinton to finish his second term.

"Two-thirds of the senators present not having pronounced him guilty, the Senate adjudges the respondent, William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States, is not guilty as charged in the first article of impeachment," he announced.

As part of his duties as chief justice, William Rehnquist also administered the oath of office to three U.S. presidents. The last time was for President Bush's second inauguration in 2005, when his voice was raspy from treatment for thyroid cancer.

Like most members of the Supreme Court, Justice Rehnquist rarely granted interviews, and said very little about the court decisions he was involved in.

But he did tell the C-SPAN public affairs television network that he enjoyed his time on the high court and working with his fellow justices.

"Yes, I do. I would not want to hold it forever. But I have enjoyed it a great deal during the time I have had it," he said.

William Hubbs Rehnquist was born in Wisconsin in 1924. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, and later studied at Stanford and Harvard Universities, before earning his law degree at Stanford in 1952.

Mr. Rehnquist began his legal career as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who had been the chief prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at the Nuremburg trials following the Second World War. He did a stint at the U.S. Justice Department, before being appointed to his seat on the Supreme Court.

Perhaps the most controversial episode in Justice Rehnquist's career came in 2000, when the Supreme Court put an end to the presidential vote recount in Florida, effectively giving George Bush a narrow electoral vote victory over Al Gore.

Liberals criticized the ruling as court interference in politics, while conservatives hailed the ruling as in keeping with the U.S. Constitution.

In his spare time, Justice Rehnquist wrote books on the history of the Supreme Court, including a 1992 volume on the Senate impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, which took place in 1868.