Secret Rehnquist Lunch with Bush 43 Disclosed

by Ed Whelan

Here’s a revelation: Ten years ago, when rumors about Chief Justice Rehnquist’s declining health and possible retirement were circulating, President George W. Bush invited Rehnquist to the White House for lunch and Rehnquist accepted. At the lunch, Bush and Rehnquist discussed the Court. Asked why Bush invited him, Rehnquist replied:

Maybe to talk about the court. Maybe because he likes me. I like him.

Actually, I’m making this up. Had anything like that happened, there would have been a massive media outcry. Together with the secret lunch, Rehnquist’s hypothetical statement that he likes Bush would have been cited as cause for his recusal in cases important to the president. Knowing that any such lunch would invite intense media examination and calls for investigation, the Bush White House never would have contemplated the lunch. (President Bush did invite all the justices and their spouses to a dinner near the end of his presidency.)

It turns out, though—as I’ve learned from this article in which reporter Joan Biskupic recounts her recent interview with Justice Ginsburg—that President Obama and Ginsburg had lunch at the White House last summer, that they talked about the Court, and that Ginsburg offered the explanation I quote above (including “I like him”). Don’t hold your breath waiting for the media outcry.

Let me hasten to add that I don’t have clearly in mind where the ethical line ought to be drawn on contacts between the president and a Supreme Court justice, and I am not contending that there was anything improper about the lunch. But I do think that the ethical line ought to be the same for Democratic presidents and liberal justices as it is for Republican presidents and conservative justices. 

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