Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist Dies

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 4, 2005

William Hubbs Rehnquist, the 16th chief justice of the United States, died last night at his home in Arlington. He was 80.

Rehnquist, who had been suffering from thyroid cancer since last October, had managed to lead the court through its last term, which ended in June. But he went through "a precipitous decline in his health in the last couple of days," Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said.

Rehnquist's death comes as the Senate is preparing for hearings on President Bush's nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. to replace Sandra Day O'Connor as an associate justice. Those hearings are set to begin on Tuesday. O'Connor, 75, announced her retirement on July 1, effective upon the confirmation of a successor.

President Bush must now name a replacement for Rehnquist, and the process of selecting and confirming a new justice will probably last past the first day of the court's new term, Oct. 3. That means that even if Roberts is swiftly confirmed, the court will be operating with only eight members for an indefinite period.

Tie votes on the court result in the automatic affirmance of the lower court's ruling in the court, but do not establish a legal precedent.

A conservative stalwart appointed as associate Justice by President Richard M. Nixon in 1972, Rehnquist was elevated to chief justice in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan. His 33-year tenure on the court was one of the longest and most influential in the institution's history, as he spearheaded a rightward move at the court -- first as a lone dissenter, then later as the leader of a five-justice conservative majority.

Already preoccupied with the recovery effort for Hurricane Katrina and the Roberts nomination battle, President Bush must now focus on a successor for Rehnquist. But Rehnquist's illness has prepared the White House for the possibility that he would be leaving the court, so the element of surprise should be less than it was in the case of O'Connor's retirement.

Among those who have been mentioned as possible choices include Alberto R. Gonzales, the attorney general, and federal appeals court judges J. Michael Luttig and J. Harvie Wilkinson, both of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond.

"The president and Mrs. Bush are deeply saddened at the passing of Chief Justice Rehnquist," the White House said in a statement. "His family is in their thoughts and prayers." An aide said Bush was informed of Rehnquist's death shortly before 11 p.m. and added that the president will make a statement to reporters about the chief justice Sunday morning after attending church services.

Rehnquist leaves a towering legacy. As a young lawyer in Phoenix in 1957, he declared a personal war of sorts against the Supreme Court, then headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren. Rehnquist gave a speech blasting Warren and Justice Hugo Black as "left-wing philosophers." He published a magazine article blaming the Warren court's liberal drift on the "political cast" of the justices' law clerks.

Rehnquist's effort to roll back the modern liberal tide would take him to Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater's ill-fated 1964 presidential campaign, to the Nixon administration Justice Department and eventually, in 1972, to the court itself.

Now, after 33 years there -- the last 18-plus of them as chief justice -- Rehnquist, 80, could claim to have fought Warren to a draw.

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