It is too soon after his death to assess the legacy of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, but the claim made in the Sept. 5 editorial that he was solicitous of states' interests requires a qualification.

Whenever states sought to protect the environment or conserve resources, for example, by using their police powers to limit the use of private property, Chief Justice Rehnquist was opposed. In short, his deeply held, if not at times extreme, conservatism trumped states' rights, as interpreted by the states.

Chief Justice Rehnquist was as much an activist judge on the right as any have been on the left.


Santa Fe, N.M.


Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's legacy includes defending the courts from political pressure. During the 1996 presidential campaign, when Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) called for the impeachment of a federal judge over a single evidentiary ruling, and President Bill Clinton's spokesman refused to rule it out, Chief Justice Rehnquist gave a widely noted speech defending the independence of the courts.

When Congress voted without a single hearing to sharply limit the ability of federal judges to pick criminal sentences that fit the crime, Chief Justice Rehnquist dryly objected last year: "[I]t surely improves the legislative process at least to ask the Judiciary its views on such a significant piece of legislation."

The late chief justice also used his bully pulpit to assail the surge in vitriolic attacks and impeachment threats over high-profile rulings. "Congress's authority to impeach and remove judges should not extend to decisions from the bench. That principle was established nearly 200 years ago," he wrote this year. "Any other rule would destroy judicial independence -- instead of trying to apply the law fairly, regardless of public opinion, judges would be concerned about inflaming any group that might be able to muster the votes in Congress to impeach and convict them."

Congress would do well to heed these words. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee should ask Judge John G. Roberts Jr. if he will continue Chief Justice Rehnquist's defense of constitutional checks and balances if confirmed -- and if he agrees with the late chief justice's observation that judicial independence is "one of the crown jewels of our system of government."


Executive Director

Justice at Stake Campaign