Bench Memos

A ‘Partisan’ Caricature of Chief Justice Rehnquist

One of the greatest blessings of my life was the opportunity to work for a year as a law clerk to the former chief justice, William Rehnquist. As I wrote in this short essay, published in Slate the day after the old Chief died:

The chief was a lawyer’s lawyer. He taught and inspired me, and all of his clerks, to read carefully, to write clearly, and to think hard. He will, quite appropriately, be remembered as one of the few great chief justices. For me, though, William Rehnquist is more than a historic figure and a former boss. Today, thanks in no small part to him, I have a great job: I get paid to think, research, and write about things that matter and to teach friendly and engaged students about the law. I will always be grateful. And I hope that the deluge of political spin to come will not drown out what Americans should remember about the chief: He was a dedicated public servant, committed to the rule of law and to the court. He regarded himself as the bearer of a great trust and of a heavy obligation of stewardship. In my judgment, he was faithful to that trust, and he fulfilled that obligation.

I suppose these thoughts should be kept in mind when one reads my review of a new book purporting to be an account of “the life of William Rehnquist.” It’s called “The Partisan,” but that term applies better to the project than its subject. As I say in the review, the book is a “tediously partisan, relentlessly tendentious and superficial expansion of a similarly flawed New York Times Magazine profile published more than 25 years ago.” I conclude:

Rehnquist was a brilliant attorney and jurist, a devoted husband and father, a generous teacher and mentor, a maps-and-weather geek and a Green Bay Packers fan. As President George W. Bush remarked at his funeral, “to work beside William Rehnquist was to learn how a wise man looks at the law and how a good man looks at life.” Yes, he was a conservative, a Goldwater supporter and a Nixon appointee, but it is more important—and it was more important to him—that he was a lawyer’s lawyer with a clear-eyed appreciation for the obligations that came with his, and the court’s, role.

Yes, Rehnquist disagreed with a number of the court’s more liberal precedents and tried (with some success) to move the law in what he believed was a better direction. This wasn’t because he was activist, partisan, rigid or “nihilistic.” It was because he had well-considered and eminently defensible views about the meaning of the Constitution, the nature of our federal system of government, and the limited role of unelected judges in our democracy.

Read the review, and then go buy and read Rehnquist’s own really good book about the Court, The Supreme Court: How It Was, How It Is.


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