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Background: Mr. Chief Justice William Rehnquist

January 13, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: For much of his career, William Hubbs Rehnquist stayed out of the spotlight. Now he is the central figure in the very public impeachment trial of the President of the United States.

The 16th Chief Justice graduated first in his law school class at Stanford University in 1952. He began his legal career as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. Rehnquist worked as a trial lawyer in Phoenix and was noticed by conservative Republicans for his opposition to some civil rights initiatives.

In 1969, the Nixon Administration tapped Rehnquist to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Three years later, President Nixon nominated Rehnquist to the Supreme Court.

In an interview on public television in 1986, Rehnquist talked about his first days on the high court.

WILLIAM REHNQUIST: I remember the first time I sat in conference, we had the swearing-in in the morning of both lewis and me and then, we had conference right afterwards, and I sat there, and I thought it was almost mind-boggling, here we were deciding things of great import and you know, I felt, who am I to be doing this?

KWAME HOLMAN: President Ronald Reagan nominated Rehnquist to become Chief Justice in 1986.

WILLIAM REHNQUIST: Senator, let me beg to differ with you on that point, if I may.

KWAME HOLMAN: During confirmation hearings, Rehnquist was questioned about a memorandum he wrote as a Supreme Court law clerk in support of enforced racial segregation.

Inside the imposing marble confines of the Supreme Court behind the U.S. Capitol, the Chief Justice earned a reputation as a stern taskmaster to his fellow justices and a stickler for schedules and rules. Presiding over the justices’ private weekly conferences in this room, Rehnquist routinely wraps up the sessions by lunchtime. When a severe snowstorm brought most of Washington to a hault three years ago, Rehnquist kept the Court in session by dispatching four-wheel drive vehicles to bring the justices to work.

But the tall, business-like Chief Justice is also called charming, cordial and down-to-earth. Rehnquist has a long-standing habit of taking walks around the Supreme Court building, though only rarely is he recognized by the scores of tourists he passes. And each year at Christmas, Rehnquist adds his voice to the caroling at the Court’s holiday celebration. Despite such informalities, Rehnquist supports the standing prohibition against cameras in the Supreme Court.

The Constitution requires that the Chief Justice preside over presidential impeachment trials because the Vice President — who normally would preside in his role as president of the senate — has a conflict of interest. Last Thursday in the Senate, the 74-year old Rehnquist took the required oath to do “impartial justice.” He will oversee the trial of the president but is likely to defer to the Senate jurors, who have the power to settle issues by a majority vote.

Senators’ questions of either side and of any witnesses in the trial will be submitted to the Chief Justice who will read them aloud. In high court sessions and in his role in the Senate, Rehnquist wears formal black robes adorned with four gold stripes on each sleeve — an idea Rehnquist got from a costume he saw in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

And the man in charge of the impeachment trial happens to be an expert on the subject. Rehnquist authored a 1992 book, titled Great Inquests, in which he detailed the 1805 impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase and the nation’s only other presidential impeachment trial — Andrew Johnson’s in 1868.

In an interview with C-SPAN shortly after his book was published, Rehnquist argued the presidency would be very different today had President Johnson been convicted and thereby removed from office.

WILLIAM REHNQUIST: The President’s tenure of office would have been less secure by — marginally less secure. I don’t think there would have been a lot more impeachments. But the congressional authority to impeach would have acted more like a Sword of Damocles designed not to fall, but to hang, and to threaten the president.

And I think that any time that a president of one party confronted a congress, controlled by large majorities the opposite party, it wouldn’t be just the usual weapons with which Congress and the president fence with one another – you know, vetoes, and overrides, and insertions and appropriation bills, and withholding of appropriated funds.

You know, the president and congress have been fencing with one another for a long time with those various weapons. But Congress would then have an additional weapon in its arsenal, which would be the threat of impeachment.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate trial schedule is expected to be adjusted to accommodate Rehnquist’s bad back — which precludes him from sitting for long hours.