Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist died yesterday at his home in Arlington, with his three children at his side. He was 80.
“The chief justice battled thyroid cancer since being diagnosed last October and continued to perform his dues on the court until a precipitous decline in his health the last couple of days,” Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said.
His passing opens the second Supreme Court vacancy for President Bush just as the Senate takes up the nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to fill the position vacated by retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
Judge Roberts’ nomination has ignited a fierce partisan debate with liberal interest groups lining up to defeat the nomination — a battle that is now certain to escalate. Hearings on the Roberts nomination are to begin Tuesday.
Justice Rehnquist was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Nixon as associate justice by President Nixon and took his seat on Jan. 7, 1972. President Reagan elevated him to chief justice in 1986.
Rumors that Justice Rehnquist was on the verge of retirement have been circulating for more than a year in Washington.
But he refused to retire, even after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and continued to perform his duties until his final days.
Justice Rehnquist was part of five-justice majority that ended the 2000 election crisis and placed George W. Bush in the White House.
But historians will undoubtedly look back on his broader role in leading the court’s conservative shift over the past three decades.
Justice Rehnquist served 33 years on the high court. For the past 19, he has been chief justice, the longest tenure of any chief justice since John Marshall served in the position during the early 1800s.
He served in the Air Force as a sergeant in North Africa during World War II. His legal career began when he was fresh from Stanford Law School, as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson.
The young clerk had graduated at the top of the historic Stanford class of 1952, the same year as Justice O’Connor, who was third in the class.
After later practicing private law in Arizona, Justice Rehnquist served as an assistant attorney general under President Nixon, who chose him for the Supreme Court in 1971.
He was sworn in in January 1972, about a year before the landmark Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion.
Raised a Lutheran in a middle-class Milwaukee family, Justice Rehnquist quickly asserted himself as one not to stray from his conservative roots.