William Hubbs Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

  • Born: October 1, 1924 
  • Educated: Attended public elementary and high schools in Shorewood, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. Stanford University, B.A., M.A. 1948; Phi Beta Kappa; Harvard University, M.A., 1950; Stanford University, LL.B., 1952; Order of the Coif. Law Clerkship 
  • Married: Natalie Cornell 
  • Nominated: Reagan 
  • Commissioned: September 25, 1986
  • Time in Service: 33 years, 7 months, 26 days 
  • Died: September 3, 2005

William H. Rehnquist's service on the Supreme Court allowed him to witness - and direct - a dramatic transition in political ideology. From associate justice in 1972 to his present role as chief justice, Rehnquist struggled against liberal colleagues Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun. Later, as the leader of a conservative court, Rehnquist enjoyed the luxury of sitting in the majority. And as chief justice, Rehnquist often attracted the support of the liberal remnant of the Court. A highly practical man, Rehnquist found inspiration in Charles Evans Hughes' practice of compromising to secure the broadest majority. In many ways, Rehnquist's desires to maintain high credibility for the Court and the law, the result of a general perception of judicial unity, has contributed greatly to his success in mobilizing the Court's conservative shift. Thus, despite the current return of the Court to a more moderate balance, Rehnquist's conservative vision and influence will no doubt stay strong during his tenure. William Hubbs Rehnquist was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on October 1, 1924. He enjoyed a relatively undistinguished childhood in his middle-class suburban home. The son of a paper salesman, Rehnquist grew up in a heavily conservative household in which popular Republican leaders such as Alf Landon, Wendell Wilkie, and Herbert Hoover were idolized. World War II erupted before Rehnquist had a chance to complete his education and the future chief justice enlisted in the air force branch of the army as a weather observer. He served in North Africa.

Like many Americans in his generation, Rehnquist attended college after World War II with the support of scholarship money from the GI Bill. At Stanford, he earned both a bachelor and a master of arts degree in political science. A distinguished student, Rehnquist was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1948. He continued his education at Harvard where he received another master of arts degree -- this time in government -- two years later. Rehnquist returned to Stanford Law School in 1950; he graduated at the top of his class. (Sandra Day O'Connor, who would eventually serve with him on the Supreme Court, graduated third from that same class.)

At law school, Rehnquist started down the path that would eventually take him to the Supreme Court. Having already established a reputation among his instructors and peers as a brilliant legal thinker and an able scholar, Rehnquist impressed one professor sufficiently to earn a private interview with Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who was visiting the law school. Rehnquist's professor, a former clerk for Jackson, arranged the meeting in hopes that his favored student could convince Jackson of his qualifications for a clerkship. Rehnquist walked away from that meeting feeling he had failed to impress Jackson in the slightest. However, his fears proved false as Jackson eventually selected him for clerkship that year. Rehnquist's clerkship under the moderate Jackson did not alter his conservative beliefs in any noticeable manner. Instead, his exposure to the other clerks may have served only to confirm his conservativism.

Rehnquist married Natalie Cornell, whom he had met during his law school years, after his completing his clerkship. He also moved to Phoenix, Arizona to work for a law firm there. Rehnquist chose Phoenix for its pleasant weather and favorable political leanings. The next few years passed uneventfully for Rehnquist. He, together with his wife, raised a son and two daughters. Following advice given to him by Justice Felix Frankfurter, Rehnquist began his participation in the Republican Party. He became a Republican Party official and achieved prominence in the Phoenix area as a strong opponent of liberal initiatives such as school integration. Rehnquist campaigned for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater during the 1964 elections. During that time, he befriended Richard Kleindienst, another attorney from Phoenix. When Richard Nixon rose to the presidency a few years later, he appointed Kleindienst deputy attorney general of his administration. Kleindienst sought Rehnquist for the position of deputy attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. When Justice John Marshall Harlan retired in 1971, the Nixon administration chose Rehnquist as Harlan's replacement. A Democratic Senate overwhelmingly confirmed his nomination. On January 7, 1972, Rehnquist -- and fellow nominee, Lewis Powell -- took their oaths of office.

In his early days on the Court, Rehnquist was outspoken as the Court's lone dissenter despite the presence of three other Republican appointees. He battled against the expansion of federal powers and advocated a strong vision of state's rights. Rehnquist also differed from the majority's view that the Fourteenth Amendment applied to non-racial issues such as the rights of women, children, and immigrants. Although his dissents at the time influenced very little of the Court's conclusions, Rehnquist provided the future Court many valuable ideas which inspired the later conservative shift. Rehnquist's views led him to oppose the majority in several important decisions. In his opinion, the liberal faction of the Court too often tried to shape public policy by expanding the scope of the law beyond its original meaning.

By 1986, Rehnquist held significant persuasive power. After Chief Justice Burger retired from the Court, President Reagan nominated Rehnquist to replace him. Liberals howled in protest. Many painted Rehnquist as a racist and conservative extremist. Opponents alleged racist behavior (an old charge) when Rehnquist was a Republican official in Phoenix. Others charged that he had mishandled a family trust. In the end, however, these accusations remained unproved and the Senate confirmed Rehnquist by a solid majority.

As chief justice, Rehnquist won the respect of his colleagues through his efficient management of court affairs. Rehnquist also revealed a moderation in his views by voting with liberals to protect gay rights and free speech. After his wife passed away in 1991, Rehnquist spent the last 14 years of his life as a widower, passing his time with quiet hobbies. On Sept. 3, 2005, after a long battle with thyroid cancer during which he declined to step down from the bench but was forced to be absent from many oral arguments, Rehnquist passed away in his suburban Virginia home.