Monday, September 05, 2005

William Rehnquist 1924-2005

The death of William Rehnquist leaves the US Supreme Court bereft of perhaps its finest justice of the last generation.

Rehnquist was appointed to the Court in 1972 by President Nixon, and then appointed as Chief Justice in 1986 by President Reagan.

In his early years Rehnquist was mostly a dissenter, trying to brake a Supreme Court that had spun badly out of control: he opposed Furman v. Georgia (1972) when the Court tried to abolish the death penalty; he opposed Roe v. Wade (1973) when the Court established nationwide abortion on demand; and he opposed repeatedly the strategy of forced busing that the Court inflicted on major American cities with devastating effects on central city education.

After becoming Chief Justice, the Court slowly moved in a more moderate direction, and Rehnquist would win more battles than in the early years. Clevelanders have special reason to remember him well: he wrote the 5-4 majority opinion that upheld the constitutionality of Cleveland's voucher program in Zelman v Simmons-Harris (2002).

It was well known that his health had declined in the last year--but over the summer he looked very much the good soldier; battered perhaps in body, but strong in spirit. His death came when the summer focus on the Court had suddenly shifted elsewhere, and the news that he had died Saturday night was a disappointment and a shock.

The Chief will be missed badly; and it will not be easy to find a justice with his balance, wisdom, and commitment to the Constitution.



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