A Profile of Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist

Former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. Getty Images

Conservative Credentials:

A conservative icon, William Hubbs Rehnquist began his term on the Supreme Court in 1972 after being appointed by President Richard Nixon. Within a year, he had distinguished himself as a conservative, and solidified that role when he offered one of only two dissenting opinions in the controversial 1973 abortion-rights case, Roe v. Wade. A federalist, Rehnquist was a strong supporter of state's rights (as outlined in the Constitution), practiced judicial restraint, and consistently sided with conservatives on the issues of religious expression, free speech and the limits of federal powers.

Early Life:

William "Donald" Rehnquist was born Oct. 1, 1924 to a conservative family in Milwaukee. As the son of a paper salesman, William Benjamin Rehnquist, and a translator, Margery Peck Rehnquist, Rehnquist changed his middle name in high school to honor his grandmother. After graduating from Shorwood High School in 1942, he and attended half a semester of Kenyon College. When World War II erupted, he enlisted in the US Army Air Force and served in North Africa as a weather observer. After the war, he attended Stanford and graduated from Harvard under the GI Bill, then earned his law degree from Stanford Law School.

Formative Years:

At an early age, Rehnquist distinguished himself as a brilliant student. At law school, he emerged as one of the top legal prospects in his class (along with Sandra Day O'Connor, whom he briefly dated) and one of his professors arranged a meeting with moderate Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert H.

Jackson. Although Rehnquist didn't think the interview went well, Jackson selected him for a clerkship during the 1952-53 term. As a clerk, Rehnquist wrote a controversial argument against desegregation during the Brown v. Board of Education deliberations, claiming later that it was written from Jackson's perspective.

Early Career:

Not long after he left Jackson's employ, Rehnquist moved to Pheonix, in part because of the area's conservative politics, and wrote an article discussing how Supreme Court justices are influenced by the ideology of their clerks. In 1953, he married Natalie "Nan" Cornell and raised a son and two daughters while he working in private practice until 1968. He became active in local Republican politics during this time and, in 1964, got heavily involved in Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign. With the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, Rehnquist served as Assistant Attorney General of the Office of Legal Counsel.

Supreme Court Nomination & Confirmation:

When John Marshall Harlan II retired from the Supreme Court in 1971, Nixon appointed Rehnquist (whom he mistakenly referred to as "Renchburg" on the Watergate tapes) to succeed him. During his confirmation hearings, controversy arose over the memo he wrote for Justice Jackson on the separate-but-equal doctrine. Despite the debate -- and Rehnquist's unabashed conservatism -- a Democratic Senate confirmed him by a 68–26 vote on Dec. 10, 1971. On Jan. 7, 1972, Rehnquist and fellow appointee Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. (who succeeded Justice Hugo Black) were seated as associate justices.

Associate Justice Rulings (1972-86):

Rehnquist wasted no time in distinguishing himself from his more liberal colleagues. In his first year, he made clear his support for states' rights and his limited view of the Fourteenth Amendment (which defines citizenship and provides for civil and political rights). One of his first major rulings was Roe v. Wade, in which he was one of only two justices who broke with the majority in the controversial case that upheld abortion rights. Besides abortion, he also defended school prayer, opposed affirmative action and supported capital punishment. During his early years on the court, he was often in the minority.

Chief Justice Nomination & Confirmation:

In 1985, Chief Justice Warren Burger announced his resignation. Rehnquist's warm and welcoming demeanor helped him establish good relationships with his fellow justices, which is why even those with opposing ideologies supported President Ronald Reagan's decision to nominate him.

Reagan named Antonin Scalia to fill Rehnquist's post, and although Scalia was more conservative than Rehnquist, it was Rehnquist who faced the most heat during the confirmation hearings. His controversial memo was again discussed, as were his conservative opinions. He was ultimately confirmed, however, by a 65-33 vote; so was Scalia, 98-0.

The Rehnquist Court (1985-2005):

As the 16th Chief Justice, Rehnquist won favor with his colleagues for both his management style and ideology. A highly organized conservative, he was efficient in the discharge of court procedures and as the court leaned further to the right, he was no longer in the minority. As head of the court, Rehnquist oversaw several landmark cases, including Bill Clinton's impeachment trial in 1999 and the presidential election of 2000 between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Rehnquist's most significant impact, however, was on state's rights, specifically in the areas of the equal protection clause and the commerce clause.

Equal Protection:

Rehnquist took a narrow view of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause, believing that its only purpose was to prevent states from denying equal protection to freed slaves. Rehnquist held that the clause should not be applied when the state has not intentionally discriminated nor when the state has not participated in discrimination. Rehnquist also opposed affirmative action, believing that race should not be a factor for employment or college admissions. Similarly, he opposed the concept of "hate crimes," believing that all violent crime deserved swift and equal justice.

Commerce Clause:

As with equal protection, Rehnquist had a limited view of the commerce clause, as well. His goal was to move the Court further in the direction of federalism, reducing the power of the federal government and expanding the rights of individual states to govern themselves. Among his decisions toward that end, the Rehnquist Court limited the federal government's power to oversee police department reforms and extend federal minimum wage and overtime standards to state and local governments.


In October 2004, Rehnquist was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and missed the end of the Supreme Court's fall term and the start of its spring term. Despite his illness, however, Rehnquist made sure he was available to administer the oath of office to President George W. Bush at the commencement of his second term. In March of 2005, he returned to the Court and once again began hearing cases until the end of the spring term. He died on Sept. 3, 2005. He was the first justice to die in office since his former mentor, Justice Jackson, who died in 1954.


Rehnquist will be remembered by conservatives for overseeing the transformation of the highly liberal Supreme Court. He will be remembered by foes and adversaries alike for strictly enforcing time limits on oral arguments and deadlines for justices' opinions. Additionally, he is the author of four books, The Supreme Court: How It Was, How It Is (1987), Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson (1992), All the Laws but One : Civil Liberties in Wartime (1998), and The Centennial Crisis: The Disputed Election of 1876 (2004).