The era of the Rehnquist Court has come to a close and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has stepped quietly into the arms of God. As twilight falls upon this remarkable man’s career, the most notable elements of his extraordinary legacy must not be lost to revisionist history.
At the age of 47, Chief Justice Rehnquist was first appointed to the Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon in 1971. Justice Rehnquist then found himself on a Court that had been dangerously altered during the Roosevelt Era by New Deal philosophy. This was a Court that had actually ruled in Wickard v. Filburn that a man in Ohio who was growing wheat in his own backyard as a means to feed his own family and his livestock had somehow violated the interstate commerce clause of the United States Constitution because the wheat he grew could be sold.
Moreover, in their unanimous decision this liberal activist Court affirmed: “… if we assume it is never marketed… Home-grown wheat… competes with wheat in commerce. The stimulation of commerce is a use of the regulatory function quite as definitely as prohibitions or restrictions thereon.” The stage was then set by this activist Court for a massive expansion of federal power.
During his early years on the Court, Justice Rehnquist was often the lone dissenter to outrageous decisions, yet his adherence to the Constitution expressed in some of these early dissents had great influence upon the Court as evidenced in later majority opinions.
In 1973, when the Supreme Court illegitimately bestowed its imprimatur on abortion on demand, Justice Rehnquist wrote in his scathing dissent to that majority decision in Roe v. Wade that, “To reach its result, the Court necessarily has had to find within the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment a right that was apparently completely unknown to the drafters of the Amendment.”
When Warren Burger resigned as chief justice, President Ronald Reagan nominated Justice Rehnquist as his replacement, and he was confirmed in 1986. He was a faithful steward of the Court–most notably in efforts over the years to minimize the amount of damage done to the United States Constitution by a majority liberal activist Court.
In the 1995 case of United States v. Lopez, the Rehnquist Court marked the first time in over 50 years that the Supreme Court upheld the rights of the states, ruling against the expansion of federal power in finding a federal law in violation of that now woefully distorted commerce clause in the Constitution.
Chief Justice Rehnquist was often found standing in the breach in defense of the Constitution, endowing this nation through the years with a noble legacy of resistance to an activist Court determined to make its own law and enact its own agenda.
For his valiant defense of the Constitution time and again, this nation owes Chief Justice William Rehnquist a profound debt of gratitude for his noble life and service.
As we bid loving farewell to this stoic champion, I reflect upon the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson in tribute:
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are,
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
When the final war with illness and physical weakness came to William Rehnquist, he resolutely remained at his post for his president, for his country, and for the future of mankind.
He did not yield.
–Trent Franks is the congressman from the 2nd District of Arizona. He is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, the House Armed Services Committee and vice chairman of the Constitution Subcommittee.