Emotion Overcomes Sober Court

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 6, 2005; 3:36 PM

By design, the Supreme Court is the least emotional of Washington institutions--one that prides itself on cool, reasoned legal debate. Displays of passion by lawyers at oral argument are frowned upon.

Yet this morning, feelings flowed freely at the court, as justices, law clerks and court staff gathered to say good-bye to William H. Rehnquist, the man everyone in the building had known simply as "the Chief" for almost 19 years.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, on the eve of her own planned farewell to the court, stood by Rehnquist's flag-draped coffin, trembling and sobbing openly. O'Connor is a tough 75-year-old who was raised amid cattlemen and rattlesnakes on the Arizona desert, a female trail-blazer on the court known for zero tolerance of wayward attorneys.

But even O'Connor could not contain her feelings for a friend she first met at Stanford Law School more than half a century ago.

As she took her place with her fellow justices, O'Connor glanced in the direction of an oil painting of Rehnquist in his judicial robes, which had been put on public display for the first time.

"Nice portrait," she whispered through her tears, as if complimenting Rehnquist himself.

O'Connor was flanked by Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia--brushing a tear from his eye--Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was traveling in China and was unable to make it back in time for the ceremony; Justice David H. Souter was also out of town. Court officials said both men will be in Washington for the chief justice's funeral tomorrow.

Also at the center of the brief prayer ceremony was John G. Roberts Jr., whom President Bush has nominated to succeed the chief justice. A former law clerk to Rehnquist, Roberts was one of eight former aides tapped by the family to carry the casket up the court's long marble staircase.

Jaw set, staring straight ahead, Roberts helped hoist the heavy white pine box onto the Lincoln Catafalque, draped in black velvet, which had been loaned to the court by the U.S. Congress and set in the middle of the court's marble-columned Great Hall. Busts of Rehnquist's 15 predecessors as chief justice looked down on the scene.

Then Roberts took his place in a corner of the hall, his eyes rimmed in red. One was left to imagine the emotions surging within him as he pondered first burying an old mentor, then taking his place.

The chief justice's three children gathered near the of the coffin:James, a lawyer and former college basketball star; Janet, also a lawyer; and Nancy Spears, whom Rehnquist frequently credited as an editor of his books about Supreme Court history. Their children, Rehnquist's grandchildren, fidgeted and sobbed.

"Rest here now, child of God, William Hubbs Rehnquist," intoned the Rev. Dr. George W. Evans, the pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in McLean, which Rehnquist has attended for many years. "Rest here in the halls you know so well."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company