One Man's Unwavering Constitution

Chief Justice Rehnquist swore in President Bush earlier this year despite a recent tracheotomy.
Chief Justice Rehnquist swore in President Bush earlier this year despite a recent tracheotomy. (By Wally Hindes -- Associated Press)
By Marcia Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 5, 2005

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist worked until the very end.

It was his way, say those close to him.

He took pride in making sure that the top level of the nation's third branch of government functioned with precision, always on time, cases moving efficiently, one after the other, a system never wavering, never faltering. It was a work ethic and style that earned him the deep respect of his fellow justices, including those who did not side with his conservative philosophy.

And so it was that during the last year of his life, as he battled thyroid cancer until his death Saturday night at age 80, "the Chief" was in his chambers as often as possible. At his desk. Working.

James C. Duff, a former chief of staff for Rehnquist, saw him there as recently as two weeks ago. Rehnquist was there handling court business, Duff says. The two had known each other since the 1970s, when Rehnquist was an associate justice and Duff was working out of Chief Justice Warren Burger's chambers as the senior court attendant.

It was Duff's job to manage the logistics of the court's sessions. He sat behind the justices for four years, from 1975 to 1979, while studying law at Georgetown. Rehnquist was still relatively new to the court back then, having been nominated by President Richard Nixon in 1971.

It was nearly 20 years later, in 1996, when Duff went to work for Chief Justice Rehnquist. They were close colleagues and close friends, Duff says.

"He approached the disease the way he did everything, with energy, determination, focus, discipline," Duff said yesterday, measuring his words through grief and propriety. "He was a very disciplined man. And he had a very strong faith."

The two talked about work and family. It was, says Duff, a personal conversation, a talk between two friends, two men who'd known each other over mountains of time.

But the story of Rehnquist's last year on the court can be told in another way, too, through the press releases that came from his chambers.

For example, this one from October 2004: "Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital on Friday, Oct. 22 and underwent a tracheotomy on Saturday in connection with a recent diagnosis of thyroid cancer. He is expected to be on the Bench when the Court reconvenes on Monday, November 1."

When Nov. 1 arrived, the statement from the nation's 16th chief justice went like this:

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