Remembering Chief Justice Rehnquist

Monday, September 5, 2005

As I turned in my ID on the last day of my clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I felt a lump in my throat as I imagined how great it would be if I could remain. "Justices get to stay," I thought. "They don't have to leave this amazing place."

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's death underscores my error. The stripes that adorned his robe now embody the wisdom Robert Frost once shared: Nothing gold can stay. Whether or not one agreed with the views of "the Chief," this much is clear: Because of his leadership, he was a great chief justice.

When first appointed, he was at the right end of the court. Yet slowly, the court moved toward him; arguments he had made in dissent became the majority's view. From limiting the rights of criminal defendants and congressional power to making church and state less separate and abortion restrictions more robust, Chief Justice Rehnquist has had an enormous impact.

I am tempted to add that the Chief shifted during his tenure. In recent years, he reaffirmed Miranda rights and rejected a lower court's handling of capital cases. He also limited states' rights so Congress could combat sex discrimination.

It's a nice image for moderates, but it's not accurate. The Chief started out very conservative and so remained. If he seemed less so recently, that's because of his commitment to judicial supremacy, strategic considerations, and the reality that Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are even more conservative.

We should not lose sight of William Rehnquist's distinguished service as chief justice. The justices' commitments cause them to disagree often, yet they get along well. How do they pull off that feat?

Part of the answer was their leader. The Chief worked to create a supremely functional court by not turning intense disagreements into personal animosities; by not assigning the most tedious opinions to colleagues who disagreed with him; and by allowing each voice to be heard. The Chief led by example. Our elected officials should do the same -- particularly when our country is divided, a tragedy of biblical proportions has befallen the Gulf Coast and the court's future is at stake.

I am honored to have served at the court on the Chief's watch, and I'm grateful for the kindness he showed my fellow clerks and me during the short time we were there. But most of all, I am just so sad. No one gets to stay.


Durham, N.C.

The writer is assistant professor of law and political science at Duke University School of Law .

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company