A Man of Many Hobbies and Little Fuss

By Charles Lane
Monday, September 5, 2005

To modify an oft-repeated assessment of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist not only had a first-class intellect, he also had a first-class temperament.

And over a 33-year career on the court, it was arguably the latter that proved more important.

Rehnquist, who died Saturday night at the age of 80, could be cool and cutting on paper, especially in the dissents he wrote while an associate justice. He could be very tough on lawyers who showed up unprepared for oral argument.

But among his peers, and even among subordinates such as the law clerks who universally loved working for him, Rehnquist came across very differently: affable, calm, full of humor and, above all, unpretentious.

Whereas his predecessor, Warren E. Burger, relished the ceremonial aspects of the job, Rehnquist spent as much of his spare time as possible pursuing hobbies such as swimming, painting and playing bridge.

One of his favorite pastimes was to read novels aloud to his wife, the former Natalie "Nan" Cornell. She died of cancer in 1991.

Sponsor of the court's annual Christmas party, Rehnquist was a notorious small-time gambler. He arranged complex betting pools at the court on everything from the NCAA basketball tournament to presidential elections.

He presided over President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial; during a break in the proceedings, he ran a poker game with his law clerks in a Senate cloakroom.

"Develop a capacity to enjoy pastimes and occupations that many can enjoy simultaneously -- love for another, being a good parent to a child, service to your community," he advised the George Washington University Law School's graduating class in May 2000.

His achievements in holding an often contentious group of justices together through such trials as the bitter Bush v. Gore case in 2000 seemed to prove the adage that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

In statements issued the day after his death, the members of the court rendered a unanimous judgment in praise of Rehnquist's temperament.

"He was a good friend, maintaining his sense of humor and proportion throughout the difficult period that marked his most recent service," Justice John Paul Stevens said.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who had known Rehnquist since they were law students together at Stanford during the early 1950s, said he "led the court with firm principles but with a light touch."

Conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas and liberals Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg all mentioned his "fairness."

Anthony M. Kennedy said he was "unpretentious to the point of being casual."

People for the American Way, a liberal group that has not exactly agreed with Rehnquist's approach to the law, said in a statement that members of the organization "remember with respect the Chief Justice's love for the Court, his success in creating comity among his colleagues, and his courage in continuing to work in the face of daunting health problems."

Rehnquist's death and the circumstances surrounding it show that the Supreme Court is a world unto itself, and a family of sorts.

The last justice to die while in office was Robert H. Jackson, for whom Rehnquist served as a law clerk in 1952-53.

The chief justice died just as one of his former law clerks, John G. Roberts Jr., was poised to be confirmed for a seat next to him. It would have been the first time a justice served with a former law clerk on the court.

The woman Roberts has been named to replace, O'Connor, might not have made it to the court without Rehnquist's back-channel support, in the form of quiet assurances to the Reagan administration that his old friend and fellow Arizona Republican would be an asset on the court.

At the conclusion of the court's last public session of its 2004-05 term, Rehnquist, gasping heavily as he struggled to speak through a surgically made hole in his throat, read a long list of concurring and dissenting opinions in a controversial case.

There was tension in the courtroom, as spectators, many of whom were there in anticipation of a retirement announcement, wondered whether the chief justice would be able to continue.

But Rehnquist smiled and quipped: "I didn't know we had that many people on our court."

One last time, he left 'em laughing.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company