WASHINGTON—William Hubbs Rehnquist, the 16th chief justice of the United States and leader of sweeping efforts to curb federal power and expand state authority, died Saturday night, ending a nearly yearlong fight with thyroid cancer.
Court officials said Rehnquist, who was 80, died at home in Arlington, Va., surrounded by his three adult children. His death ends one of the 20th century's most distinguished high court careers and is likely to touch off a heavily financed and bitterly partisan battle over his replacement.
It comes at a time when his former law clerk, John G. Roberts Jr., is about to face grueling Senate hearings for another seat on the Supreme Court, vacated by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Although Rehnquist was seriously ill, his death comes as somewhat of a surprise, because he had returned to the bench in January and had been at work almost every day this summer. He had been hospitalized twice, however, for fevers.
White House spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo said President Bush was informed shortly before 11 p.m. about Rehnquist's death. "President and Mrs. Bush are deeply saddened," she said. "His family is in their thoughts and prayers," She said the president plans to make a statement Sunday morning after he leaves church.
Former clerks remember him as a dedicated public servant with a strong view of the Constitution, the court and the law.
"Over three decades, he moved—and improved—the court's doctrines having to do with criminal justice, federal power and the role of religion in the public square of our society," said Richard Garnett, now a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame.
Said Chuck Cooper, a private practice lawyer and former assistant attorney general:
"What we have seen over the past 15 years, under Chief Justice Rehnquist's leadership, is the court reviving the Founding Fathers' vision of limited government, and, in the process, enlarging the liberties of individuals in this country."
Interest groups—anticipating that Rehnquist's announcement last fall that he has thyroid cancer would lead to his retirement—have spent months raising millions of dollars and researching potential candidates. One group has stockpiled $18 million to help confirm whomever Bush picks. An opposition group has set up a "war room" from which to launch its attacks on the eventual nominee.
Some of that money and passion have already been spent supporting and fighting the Roberts nomination.
Rehnquist was born in 1924 in Milwaukee and attended Kenyon College before joining the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He returned to college, attending Stanford University with help from the G.I. Bill and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science. He got a master's degree in government at Harvard before returning to Stanford for law school.
Like many justices on the high court, Rehnquist clerked at the court as a young lawyer. He later went into private practice in Arizona, where he became active in Republican politics and worked as a legal adviser to Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign.
Richard Nixon first hired Rehnquist to work in the White House counsel's office. In 1972, while Rehnquist was working with the president's staff to choose a nominee to fill a high court vacancy, the president made a surprise choice: Rehnquist would become the court's 100th justice.
Almost immediately, Rehnquist struck a chord of unusual conservatism on the court. He advocated for judicial restraint in areas where the court had been quite active for decades. He argued that Congress should be limited to the powers granted to it by the Constitution.
His views made him an outsider on the early court, where he was a frequent, and sometimes lone, dissenter. But a conservative intellectual movement grew up around the same principles, and by the mid-1980s, Ronald Reagan was appointing justices with outlooks similar to Rehnquist's.
Reagan made Rehnquist chief justice in 1986 and sparked a revolution that dramatically decreased the reach of the federal government. Together with Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the Rehnquist court has cut the regulatory power of Congress, dulled its ability to mandate anti-discrimination practices and hobbled its control over states' activities.
Even in recent years, as the Rehnquist coalition has splintered over high-profile cases, the court has operated largely within the framework that Rehnquist helped establish.
In popular terms, Rehnquist's tenure as chief justice will be best remembered for two events: his presiding over the 1998 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in Congress and leading the court to its controversial 2000 decision in Bush v. Gore, which handed the presidency to George W. Bush.
Despite the radical change that Rehnquist inspired while on the court, his reputation in the court and among those in the legal community is sterling. Known by his colleagues, clerks and those who practice before the court simply as "The Chief," he's considered a master administrator who uses polite, measured authority to achieve remarkable efficiencies.
The court under his watch has reduced the number of cases heard each term and eliminated the lengthy delays that caused some cases to linger over multiple terms.
Liberals and conservatives alike respected his leadership.
Rehnquist was known for an acerbic wit and a desire for intense privacy, but it was always tempered with a sense of whimsy. When reporters hounded him outside his home earlier this summer about when he might retire, a frail but still mentally quick Rehnquist said, without missing a beat: "That's for me to know and for you to find out."
At the end of the last court term in late June, after announcing a case in which six different justices wrote opinions, Rehnquist quipped: "I didn't know we had that many judges on our court."
In the late 1990s, he personalized his black robe, placing four gold braid stripes on each sleeve. It was a nod to a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta he admired.
"I think, historically, Rehnquist will be considered among the three most influential chief justices in history," said David Garrow, a law professor at Emory University. There's John Marshall, the 19th century chief who established the court as final arbiter of constitutional issues, and Earl Warren, whose court presided over sweeping social change in the 1950s and 1960s.
"Rehnquist has to be considered in that league," Garrow said.
Rehnquist is survived by his three children, Janet Rehnquist of Arlington, Va.; James C. Rehnquist of Sharon, Mass. ; and Nancy Spears of Middlebury, Vt. He is also survived by a sister, Jean Larin of Grand Rapids, Mich., and nine grandchildren. His wife, Natalie Cornell Rehnquist, died in 1991.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): REHNQUIST
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): Rehnquist bio
ARCHIVE ILLUSTRATION on KRT Direct (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): William Rehnquist illus.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2007