The flag-draped wooden coffin of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was carried with slow, halting steps yesterday, up the long marble sweep of the institution where he presided for nearly two decades, between two silent lines of colleagues, staff and former law clerks, into a columned corridor where the mighty and humble alike began paying respects.
It was a journey that lasted only minutes, yet few gathered in the morning crowd outside the Supreme Court missed the most telling moments: when John G. Roberts Jr., the man nominated to succeed Rehnquist, walked solemnly with the other pallbearers toward the hearse bearing his body, and when an emotional Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, on the eve of her own planned farewell, wiped away tears as the plain white pine coffin passed and entered the building's Great Hall.
There, it was placed on the historic Lincoln Catafalque, which was covered in black velvet. Busts of Rehnquist's 15 predecessors as chief justice line the room where O'Connor and five other justices joined with his children and grandchildren in a short prayer service.
"Rest here now, child of God, William Hubbs Rehnquist," intoned the Rev. George W. Evans Jr., pastor of Lutheran Church of the Holy Redeemer in McLean, which Rehnquist attended for many years. "Rest here in the halls you know so well."
In those usually calm, reasoned halls -- where Rehnquist had been known simply as "the Chief" since President Ronald Reagan elevated him to the post in 1986 -- feelings flowed freely. Roberts, one of those former clerks, seemed to struggle to keep his composure. Justice Antonin Scalia brushed a tear from his eye.
And O'Connor, a tough westerner raised amid cattlemen and rattlesnakes, sobbed openly; her friendship with Rehnquist dated more than half a century to their law school days at Stanford University.
Outside, flags flew at half staff as a steady procession of visitors waited for admittance through the court's massive bronze doors. President Bush and the first lady arrived just before 4 p.m. and were escorted in through another, secured entrance. They stood before the coffin briefly, then walked over to view the formal painting of Rehnquist in his black judicial robes, on display for the first time.
Official Washington was joined throughout the day by tourists, teachers, bankers, ministers. Even when disagreeing with Rehnquist's unwaveringly conservative legal views, they said they greatly appreciated his consistency, his leadership, the brilliance of his reasoning.
"He served this country well for a very long time," said sociology professor Roger Nemeth of Holland, Mich., drawing nods from those around him.
Aspiring lawyer John Curran, a sophomore at George Washington University, remembered reading his first Supreme Court opinion when he was 13. The case specifics were long ago forgotten, but he knows that the writing was Rehnquist's and that "it was probably a dissent." In a suit and tie, Curran stood in the sun for more than an hour before he advanced to the front of the line.
Representing Rehnquist's native state was Shirley S. Abrahamson, chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, whose take on his legacy is far more honed than most. So, too, is her personal connection: Rehnquist swore her into her position nearly a decade ago.
"You have someone who is widely praised as an administrator and chief, who's been fair and equitable with all the justices and managed to win their respect and regard" -- despite often sharp differences of opinion, Abrahamson reflected. "He stood up for administrative issues and judicial independence."
The public viewing continues today from 10 a.m. to noon. The 80-year-old Rehnquist, who died Saturday at his home in Arlington after battling thyroid cancer, will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery after a funeral service at 2 p.m. at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Northwest Washington.
Evans and two other ministers from Holy Redeemer will conduct the service. Bush and O'Connor are expected to offer eulogies, as are two of the chief justice's children, James Rehnquist and Nancy Spears, and a granddaughter, Natalie Lynch.
Court officials said all eight justices will attend. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was unable to make it back yesterday from travels in China, and Justice David H. Souter also was out of town.
Staff writer Alan Lengel contributed to this report.