Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died Saturday after battling thyroid cancer, carved a record as one of most conservative jurists in U.S. history during more than 33 years on the Supreme Court.
Through landmark cases, he pushed a vision of what court observers call “new federalism” in the American judiciary, effectively advocating restraint over the federal government’s power to impose laws across the states.
President Bush yesterday said Chief Justice Rehnquist — whose funeral will be Wednesday — “provided superb leadership for the federal court system, improving the delivery of justice for the American people and earning the admiration of his colleagues throughout the judiciary.”
“He led the judicial branch of government with tremendous wisdom and skill. He honored America with a lifetime of service, and America will honor his memory.”
More than once in Chief Justice Rehnquist’s long career, he was the lone dissenter in controversial cases. He was known for opposing affirmative action and abortion and supporting school prayer, capital punishment and American symbolism.
He was one of two justices to dissent in the landmark Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion in 1973.
Chief Justice Rehnquist eventually emerged as a builder of conservative majorities. In 2000, he was part of the five-justice majority that ended the election crisis between George W. Bush and Al Gore, placing Mr. Bush in the White House.
But Supreme Court historians agree the apex of Chief Justice Rehnquist’s legacy rests on cases that struck Congress’ ability to impose nationwide laws in the name of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.
Several legal experts yesterday pointed to a 1995 decision in which the high court asserted the unconstitutionality of the Gun-Free School Zones Act. Congress had passed it five years earlier, claiming the Commerce Clause gave the federal government power to restrict the possession of firearms in school zones nationwide.
“For nearly half a century, the court had not overturned a federal statute adopted under the Commerce Clause,” said Carl W. Tobias of the University of Richmond School of Law.
The justices ruled similarly in a 2000 case, saying Congress had erred in passing the 1994 Violence Against Women Act in the name of the Commerce Clause.
“It’s difficult to think of another justice who had as much of an impact from a conservative perspective,” Mr. Tobias said.
Erwin Chemerinsky of Duke University School of Law said, “Rehnquist will be remembered as he was for his entire time on the court as a solid conservative justice.
“How much the Rehnquist court will be seen as blazing the trail of limiting Congress’ power in the name of states rights or how much it will be a blip in constitutional history will depend on what happens in the years ahead.”
Regarded by historians and his peers as a man of paramount intellect, Justice Rehnquist was appointed associate justice by President Nixon in 1971. President Reagan elevated him to chief justice in 1986.
The grandson of Swedish immigrants, he was raised in Wisconsin and was an Air Force veteran of World War II who went to college on the G.I. Bill. He is survived by three children. Nancy Spears, Janet Rehnquist and James Rehnquist were at their father’s side when he died at his Arlington home.
Until a new chief is named and confirmed, Justice John Paul Stevens, the liberal-leaning senior associate justice remaining on the court, will take over such chief justice duties as assigning cases to the other justices.
The tributes came in yesterday from other justices.
Justice Stevens called him “an inspiration to those of us privileged to serve with him.” Justice Antonin Scalia said the chief justice’s death was “a double loss for me; he was my friend long before he was my chief.” And Justice Clarence Thomas called Chief Justice Rehnquist “a good man who epitomized fairness, dignity and strength of character.”
In a coincidence, Judge John G. Roberts Jr., whose hearings to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor are scheduled to begin tomorrow, began his Washington legal career as a clerk for Associate Justice Rehnquist in the early 1980s.
Chief Justice Rehnquist’s body will lie in repose in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court tomorrow and Wednesday. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery after services Wednesday.
The court announced yesterday that the public will be invited to pay its respects from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. tomorrow and from 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday.