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Rehnquist dies at 80
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.
He and then-Justice Byron White were the only dissenters in Roe v. Wade.
Justice Rehnquist was known for his commitment to promoting federalism -- the process of protecting the power of the individual states from the federal government.
He also presided over a massive institutional change, in which the court exercised a philosophy known as "judicial restraint," as opposed to the activism of earlier years -- for which the court is now criticized for making laws instead of interpreting them.
When he became chief justice, the Supreme Court was disposing of an average of about 170 to 180 cases during a routine term.
During recent years that number has dropped significantly to about 80 cases a term.
Those who worked under Rehnquist describe a reputation of never disrespecting litigants in an oral arguments or his peers despite his own often superior command of legal and American history.
"He's definitely a genius in terms of his intellectual capacities. It's awesome, it's really mind-boggling," said Charles J. Cooper, a Washington lawyer who served as a clerk for Justice Rehnquist during the late-1970s.
Mr. Cooper recalled that in his first days working for Justice Rehnquist, he spent days researching a case before calling to update his boss, who at the time was on summer vacation in Vermont.
Justice Rehnquist received the call and listened patiently, telling Mr. Cooper that while his findings were all very interesting, the young clerk may have overlooked something.
From his own memory, Justice Rehnquist then directed Mr. Cooper to a specific page in a specific volume of the Supreme Court's archives.
"He told me the volume and the name and said, 'I think you'll find that to bear on the subject,'" Mr. Cooper said, adding that after overlooking the case during their own vigorous research, he and his fellow clerks were amazed find an "obscure" opinion buried in the records exactly where their boss had said it would be.
"I just remember being stunned," Mr. Cooper said. "We all looked at each other and thought, 'What good are we to this man?'"
Mr. Cooper, who with Justice Rehnquist is a member of the conservative legal organization the Federalist Society, said the chief justice, most notably, has lead "revolutionary change in the federalism area in the last 10 to 12 years."
Justice Rehnquist had engaged in the unusual practice of not only presiding over history, but also writing it during his tenure.
On multiple occasions, the topics of his books have blown into major national issues in the years after they were published.
In addition to writing a highly regarded history of the Supreme Court, Justice Rehnquist in 1992 published "Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson."
The impeachment of President Clinton would dominate the news in the years to come, with the chief justice's book serving as a key historical reference.
He also published a book about civil liberties during wartime eras and, after the 2000 election crisis, he delivered "Centennial Crisis: The Disputed Election of 1876," about the contested presidential election of that year between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes.
After September 11, 2001, Justice Rehnquist for the first time in his tenure found himself presiding over the high court while the country faced prolonged war-time challenges.
The result has been a series of controversial terrorism-related cases that have focused on the plight of civil liberties in a manner unseen since World War II.
Early in the war on terror, the Bush administration detained hundreds of the suspects, holding many at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Their fate took center stage last year, when the Supreme Court suddenly agreed to weigh in on whether they and other foreigners held since September 11 should be afforded habeas corpus rights in American courts.
Having for years taken a deep personal interest in the policies and actions of wartime presidents, particularly those of Abraham Lincoln, who during the Civil War had enacted the first-ever suspension of habeas corpus rights, Justice Rehnquist once again appeared steps ahead of his colleagues in his preparedness to rule on matters of the day.
In 1998, he had published "All The Laws But One," his own historical examination of civil liberties in times of war.
Justice Rehnquist had described habeas corpus as the "very essential" writ enabling someone detained in executive custody to ask a court to order his captors to show why he is being detained.
In one pre-September 11 interview, he revealed that he "would have agreed" with President Lincoln's suspension of the writ for Confederate spies and others during the Civil War.
He stressed that the historical circumstances of the time had justified the move.
Perhaps it was no surprise then that the chief justice joined with Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia as dissenters last year when the Supreme Court ruled that suspects held in the war on terror, including non-U.S. citizens detained at Guantanamo, deserve the right to challenge their detentions.
By Tom Fitton
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