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Rehnquist Departs Trying Experience

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist calls for senators to vote Friday on the article of impeachment accusing the president of perjury. (AP)

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  • By Joan Biskupic
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, February 13, 1999; Page A33

    He has been lampooned by Jay Leno, derided by cartoonists and ridiculed across continents for the gold stripes he attached to his robe. And now, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist will return to the sober confines of the Supreme Court, where no cameras are allowed, everyone pays him deference, and there is most definitely no snickering.

    But can there be dignity after this Senate impeachment trial?

    Can there be respect for the chief justice after the stripes and half-opened zipper of his robe were gleefully mocked, after David Letterman concocted the "Top Ten William Rehnquist Pickup Lines," and after humorist Dave Barry sketched him as a silly-billy who issued rulings based on the "Rock, Paper, Scissors" children's game?

    As he gaveled the trial to a close yesterday, Rehnquist made reference to the unusual ordeal he had just been through.

    "I underwent the sort of culture shock that naturally occurs when one moves from the very structured environment of the Supreme Court to what I shall call, for want of a better phrase, the more free-form environment of the Senate," he said to laughter.

    As a parting gift, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) bequeathed Rehnquist a "golden gavel" as gratitude for his work.

    But if it seems to the public that this once-revered figure might settle back into his day job slightly bruised, that view isn't widely shared by many veteran court watchers.

    "He will survive intact," said Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute, who tracks confidence in American institutions. Researchers observe that the Supreme Court, like the military, enjoys relatively high approval ratings among institutions and has little prospect of being dented because of the chief's part in the fractious trial.

    "The chief justice is someone who has never clamored for the spotlight, so he is singularly unlikely to be affected by the attention, good or bad," said Laura Ariane Miller, a District attorney and former court law clerk. "And with his personality, no one who argues before [the] court is going to forget who's in charge."

    It would be just like Rehnquist, who seems impervious to criticism he receives on the bench, to minimize the publicity and pick up where he left off when oral arguments at the Supreme Court resume Feb. 22.

    "He's not the kind of person who takes himself too seriously," said Chief Judge Richard Arnold of Little Rock, a veteran federal appeals judge.

    Until he was elevated to chief justice, Rehnquist was quite the jokester. One April Fool's Day, he hired a man to set up a life-size blowup of then-Chief Justice Warren E. Burger outside the court's granite edifice. The man then sold photo opportunities to passersby, on a spot designated by Rehnquist and sure to be seen by Burger when he arrived in his black limo.

    During the month-long impeachment trial, viewers saw a stern-faced Rehnquist, one who occasionally made wisecracks but mostly was all business, keeping the proceedings on track and within time limits, often demanding quiet in the chamber and galleries. "There were many Supreme Court moments, where he made clear that he was running a tight ship and he imposed a sense of order on the proceeding," said Clifford Sloan, a former law clerk and Clinton administration counsel now in private practice here.

    Rehnquist's place in the elevated leather chair was plainly secondary and largely ministerial. Because there were relatively few times that he could interject on any significant points of law, no one saw the quick mind and keen ability to pierce through dense legal arguments that he regularly displays at the court.

    Without that, the public had little to focus on but his looks.

    As a result, the 74-year-old chief justice was caricatured in much of the popular media as a fashion misfit and a bumbler, even a "messenger boy," who relayed the senators' queries to the prosecutors and defense. Along with the other impeachment players, he was spoofed on "Saturday Night Live." Satirist Mark Russell, noting that the stripes on his robe were inspired by a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, said, "Kind of makes you glad he didn't go to see 'La Cage aux Folles.' "

    In a Dave Barry column, the chief refers to William Jefferson Clinton, then William James Madison Clinton, then William Woodrow Wilson, et cetera, and explains that he always has been known as "The Chair": "Even as a child, The Chair would tell its mother, 'Wah! The Chair wants a bottle!' "

    There has been an upside, of sorts. Before the impeachment trial, about 6 percent of people polled said they knew who Rehnquist was. Recently, when the Pew Research Center asked people if they could name the man who was presiding over the Senate trial, 12 percent said Rehnquist and another 7 percent at least recognized him by his title of chief justice.

    Rehnquist got the job of trial overlord by way of the Constitution. For the impeachment of any other executive branch officials or federal judges, the Constitution requires the vice president to preside. To avoid a conflict of interest, the framers designated the chief justice for a presidential trial.

    He seemed to enjoy the duty, for the most part. He referred on occasion to the impeachment history he knows so well (from writing a 1992 book about impeachment trials) and seemed alert during all the presentations. But he also seemed in a hurry to get the ordeal over with. The instant the proceeding finished each day, Rehnquist would spring from his chair, clutching his red notebook, and be out the door. On breaks he would read Supreme Court briefs.

    "Now he'll go back to being regarded and known as he always has been among lawyers," said Miguel Estrada, another former court clerk who now argues before the justices. "For other people, if you see him on the street, in his hush puppies, you might still not know who he is."

    The only other chief justice to preside over a presidential trial was Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, who went on to mount a presidential bid. It was in vain.


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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