William Rehnquist's Legacy on the U.S. Supreme Court

Leader of the High Court's Conservative Revolution

William Rehnquist
William Rehnquist appears at his nomination hearing in July 1986.

 Ricardo Watson/Pictorial Parade/Getty Images


William Rehnquist was one of the most influential U.S. Supreme Court justices in modern history, a conservative stalwart who dissented with the majority jurists in the Roe v. Wade opinion legalizing abortion and who built a coalition on the bench who sought to limit the power of the federal government. Rehnquist, an appointee of Republican President Richard M. Nixon who was named chief justice by President Ronald Reagan, served 33 years on the high court before dying at age 80 in September 2005.

Rehnquist was a Goldwater Republican whose passions were federalism — limiting congressional power and strengthening state powers — and expression of religion. He argued that "just because an action is religiously motivated, does not make it consequence-free for society, and should not make it consequence-free, under society's laws." Rehnquist also voted consistently in support of the death penalty and in opposition to gay rights. He often wrote solo dissents in his early years on the bench.

Rehnquist may best be remembered for the 5-4 decision in the 2000 presidential election that stopped the Florida recount and propelled George W. Bush into the White House. He was only the second chief justice to preside over presidential impeachment hearings.

Here's a look at Rehnquist's biggest opinions on the Supreme Court.

Roe v. Wade

The court's majority held in 1974 that a woman, with her doctor, could choose abortion in earlier months of pregnancy without legal restriction, based primarily on the right to privacy. Rehnquist wrote the dissent, in which he noted: "I have difficulty in concluding, as the Court does, that the right of 'privacy' is involved in this case."

National League of Cities v. Usery

Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion in 1976, which invalided federal minimum wage requirements for local and state government employees. This case highlighted the 10th Amendment, which reserves for the states powers not explicitly enumerated elsewhere in the Constitution; this Amendment is the foundation for the state's rights movement.

Wallace v. Jaffree

This 1985 court decision invalided an Alabama law providing a moment for silent prayer in public schools. Rehnquist dissented, contending that the belief that the founders intended to erect a "wall of separation" between church and state was misguided.

Texas v Johnson

This 1989 case found flag-burning to be a protected form of political speech under the First Amendment. Rehnquist wrote one of two dissents in this 5-4 decision, saying that the flag is "the visible symbol embodying our Nation ... not simply another 'idea' or 'point of view' competing in the marketplace of ideas."

United States v. Lopez 

Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion in this 1995 case, which declared unconstitutional the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990. The act gave schools a 1,000-foot "gun-free" perimeter. Rehnquist's ruling states that Congress can regulate only commerce - its channels and instruments as well as substantive actions.

Kelo v New London

In this controversial 2005 decision, the court expanded the power of the Fifth Amendment, saying that local governments may "take" property for private use because, in this case, there was a plan that promised jobs and revenue. Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the minority, which included Rehnquist: "Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded - i.e., given to an owner who will use it in a way that the legislature deems more beneficial to the public - in the process."

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Gill, Kathy. "William Rehnquist's Legacy on the U.S. Supreme Court." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/william-rehnquist-legacy-3367740. Gill, Kathy. (2020, August 28). William Rehnquist's Legacy on the U.S. Supreme Court. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/william-rehnquist-legacy-3367740 Gill, Kathy. "William Rehnquist's Legacy on the U.S. Supreme Court." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/william-rehnquist-legacy-3367740 (accessed January 25, 2021).