Profile of William Rehnquist

Conservative US Supreme Court Chief Justice Nominated by President Reagan

Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist Sworn Into Office
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

President Richard M. Nixon appointed William Rehnquist to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971. Fifteen years later President Ronald Reagan named him as the court’s Chief Justice, a position that he held until his death in 2005. During the last eleven years of his term on the Court, there was not a single change in the roster of nine justices.

Early Life and Career

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on October 1, 1924, his parents named him William Donald.

He would later change his middle name to Hubbs, a family name after a numerologist informed Rehnquist’s mother that he would be more successful with the middle initial of H. 

Rehnquist attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio for one quarter before joining the U.S. Air Force during World War II. Although he served from 1943 to 1946, Rehnquist did not see any combat. He was assigned to a meteorology program and was stationed for a time in North Africa as a weather observer.

After being discharged from the Air Force, Rehnquist attended Stanford University where he received both a bachelor's and a master's degree in political science. Rehnquist then went to Harvard University where he received a master's in government before attending Stanford Law School where he graduated first in his class in 1952 while Sandra Day O'Connor graduated third in that same class.

Upon graduation from law school, Rehnquist spent a year working for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H.

Jackson as one of his law clerks.  As a law clerk, Rehnquist authored a very controversial memo defending the Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Plessy was opinion as a landmark case that was decided in 1896 and upheld the constitutionality of laws passed by states that required racial segregation in public facilities under the "separate but equal" doctrine.

This memo advised Justice Jackson to uphold Plessy in deciding Brown v. Board of Education in which a unanimous court ended up overturning Plessy. 

From Private Practice to the Supreme Court

Rehnquist spent 1953 to 1968 working in private practice in Phoenix before returning to Washington, D.C. in 1968 where he worked as an assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel until President Nixon appointed him as an associate Supreme Court justice. While Nixon was impressed with Rehnquist’ support for debatable procedures such as pretrial detention and wiretapping, but civil rights leaders, as well as some Senators, were not impressed due to the Plessy memo that Rehnquist had written some nineteen years earlier.

During confirmation hearings, Rehnquist was grilled about the memo to which he responded that the memo accurately reflected Justice Jackson's views at the time it was written and was not pensive of his own views. Although some believed him to be a right-wing fanatic, Rehnquist was easily confirmed by the Senate.

Rehnquist quickly showed the conservative nature of his views when joined Justice Byron White as being the only two who dissented from the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

In addition, Rehnquist also voted against school desegregation. He voted in favor of school prayer, capital punishment, and states' rights.

Upon Chief Justice Warren Burger retirement in 1986, the Senate confirmed his appointment to replace Burger by a 65 to 33 vote. President Reagan nominated Antonin Scalia to fill vacant associate justice seat. By 1989, President Reagan’s appointments had created a "new right" majority which allowed the Rehnquist-led Court to release a number of conservative rulings on issues like capital punishment, affirmative action, and abortion. Also, Rehnquist led wrote the 1995 opinion in the United States v. Lopez case, in which 5 to 4 majority struck down as unconstitutional a federal act which made it illegal to carry a gun in a school zone. Rehnquist served as the presiding judge in President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial.

Further, Rehnquist supported the Supreme Court decision, Bush v. Gore, which ended attempts to recount Florida votes in the 2000 presidential election. On the other hand, although the Rehnquist Court had the opportunity, it declined to overrule the liberal decisions of Roe v. Wade and Miranda v. Arizona.  

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Kelly, Martin. "Profile of William Rehnquist." ThoughtCo, Nov. 30, 2017, thoughtco.com/william-rehnquist-supreme-court-chief-justice-104782. Kelly, Martin. (2017, November 30). Profile of William Rehnquist. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/william-rehnquist-supreme-court-chief-justice-104782 Kelly, Martin. "Profile of William Rehnquist." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/william-rehnquist-supreme-court-chief-justice-104782 (accessed December 14, 2017).