Former Clerks Pay Tribute To 'The Chief'

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 18, 2005

Every spring, some of the most accomplished lawyers in America assemble in Washington for a two-day private tribute to the man who gave them their first big job: the chief justice of the United States, William H. Rehnquist.

But this year's annual reunion of Rehnquist's former law clerks, which took place over the weekend of June 11 and 12, felt bittersweet. The dozens of ex-aides who came from across the country sensed it might be an occasion not only to hail but also, several noted, to say farewell to the man they know simply as "the chief."

With Rehnquist, 80, suffering from thyroid cancer, his remaining time on the court is believed by many to be counted in days, not months or even weeks. Rehnquist is widely expected to retire at the end of the current term, at the end of this month.

Beyond that, the outlook for his health is uncertain.

"What I saw was a lot of emotion, and I interpreted it to be 'My God, this is a man we love who's been through a lot, and isn't it great he's here?' " said Joseph L. Hoffmann, a professor of law at Indiana University who clerked for Rehnquist during the court's 1985-1986 term.

Hoffmann, who has rarely attended the reunions, said he made a special effort to get to Washington on a weekend when he also had a high school graduation and a business meeting to attend.

The applause for Rehnquist was even more thunderous than usual when the justice, whose 33 years on the court have been exceeded by only seven others in history, walked into the court's Great Hall at 7 p.m. last Saturday, according to people who were there.

Dinner tables had been set in that vast, marble-columned space to accommodate what some said was an all-time-high turnout by former clerks.

Rehnquist waved and flashed a smile before telling the group, "It's wonderful to see everyone, but that's all I'm going to do" -- an allusion to his difficulty speaking since October, when doctors performed an operation to help him breathe as the cancer encroached on his throat.

He thanked his clerks for their cards and visits, saying they had lifted his spirits during his illness.

The bond between Supreme Court justices and their law clerks is forged from shared in-chambers experiences that are as confidential as they are intense. Half a dozen sources who agreed to discuss the event with The Washington Post cited that relationship in insisting on anonymity.

The public may know Rehnquist as the sometimes frosty legal avatar of a law-and-order view of the Constitution. But the young clerks -- often products of lesser-known law schools -- whom Rehnquist picks for their legal ability and, he has said, their lack of pomposity, attest to his private kindness and sense of humor.

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