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Full Court Press: Charles Lane

Serving in the Chief Justice's Shadow

By Charles Lane
Monday, February 7, 2005; Page A19

The eyes of the nation were upon William H. Rehnquist on Jan. 20, as the ailing 80-year-old chief justice, leaning on a cane, slowly made his way to the podium to administer the oath of office to President Bush.

But as millions of Americans watched Rehnquist, they also caught a glimpse of another important but less prominent figure from the Supreme Court, hovering just over the chief justice's shoulder: his administrative assistant, Sally M. Rider.

Sally M. Rider, administrative assistant to William H. Rehnquist, follows the chief justice as he makes his way to the platform during last month's presidential inauguration on Capitol Hill. (Jason Reed -- Reuters)

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Rider's appearance alongside the chief justice, who has been absent from oral arguments at the court since October because he is suffering from thyroid cancer, symbolized the quiet but vital support role she plays at the court, including recently when she has been one of the few people with daily access to Rehnquist during his illness.

As administrative assistant, Rider is the equivalent of a chief of staff to the chief justice. In that capacity, Rider has been helping him keep up with the flow of paper at the court, and assisting in such matters as preparing the court's annual budget request to Congress and drafting the chief justice's year-end "state of the judiciary" report.

"She's very smart, a hard worker, an excellent lawyer," said James C. Duff, a lawyer in private practice who held the administrative assistant job for four years before Rider took over in August 2000. "She stays in the background, and an element of that serves the office and the chief justice well."

Because of the strong emphasis on discretion in her job, Rider, 48, declined a request to be interviewed for this article.

Rider is the first woman to hold the administrative assistant position since Congress created it in 1972, in response to then-Chief Justice Warren E. Burger's plea that "the Office of Chief Justice desperately needs a high-level administrative deputy or assistant."

Rider, like Rehnquist, has roots in Arizona. She received her bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Arizona.

She started out on Capitol Hill as counsel for what was then known as the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, before joining the Justice Department in 1987 as a trial attorney. Rider also served a stint on the legal staff of the office of the legal adviser at the State Department.

But Rider first came to the attention of the chief justice when she was serving as deputy chief of the civil division at the U.S. attorney's office in Washington. In that capacity, she defended the Supreme Court's regulations limiting the size of signs demonstrators could carry on the sidewalks in front of its Capitol Hill building.

Though it was probably a no-lose case for the Supreme Court -- anyone who sues the high court is fighting an uphill battle -- Rider's handling of it impressed Duff, and he encouraged her to apply to be his successor.

At the time, Duff held the record as Rehnquist's longest-serving administrative assistant. The chief justice had treated the position as a two-year job until 1998, when Duff was reappointed and went on to assist the chief justice as he presided over the Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.

But Rider passed Duff last year when she was reappointed for a third term. She is not the longest-serving administrative assistant ever, though. That honor belongs to Mark Cannon, who occupied the post under Burger from 1972 until Burger retired in 1986.

Another sign of Rehnquist's trust in Rider is that he has named her as the only non-federal judge on a six-member panel that will report on the federal judiciary's compliance with laws designed to prevent and punish misconduct within its ranks. The panel is headed by Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

That task is consistent with the historical functions of the administrative assistant, who does not generally get involved with opinion-writing -- that is a job for the chief justice's law clerks -- but rather helps out with all the other roles the chief justice must play, including such little-known responsibilities as his membership on the board of the Smithsonian Institution.

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