Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said, “The Chief Justice battled thyroid cancer since being diagnosed last October and continued to perform his duties on the court until a precipitous decline in his health the last couple of days.”
Rehnquist, who died in his Arlington home surrounded by his family, served more than 33 years on the high court and had been chief justice since 1987.
“Even during a period of illness, Chief Justice Rehnquist stayed on the job to complete the work of his final Supreme Court term,” President Bush said Sunday morning. “He was a man of character and dedication. His departure represents a great loss for the Court and for our country.”
In remembering the nation’s top justice, colleagues focused on the Rehnquist’s clear legal philosophy and the lasting impact he would likely have on the court and American law.
“Chief Justice Rehnquist’s death marks the passing of a great American. For more than three decades he left a deep imprint on American law,” Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the Judiciary Committee chairman, said.
“One of the hallmarks of his tenure was his tenacious fight to preserve the integrity and independence of our federal courts,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the committee’s top Democrat. “His commitment to the court and his passion for the law and for public service was extraordinary.”
He laid out a conservative judicial ideology that stressed close adherence to the U.S. Constitution and participated in hundreds of court decisions dealing with abortion rights, religious freedom, separation of church and state, affirmative action, free speech, age discrimination, police powers and other critical matters.
“After first being named to the Supreme Court, Rehnquist dissented in many cases, often on issues that centered on religion, the powers of the states, women’s rights, civil rights cases, and death penalty cases. In those days, he so frequently was the lone dissenter that at one point his law clerks presented him with a small Lone Ranger doll,” NPR’s Nina Totenberg reported. “A decade later, however, Rehnquist was leading a conservative core that gained new members with almost every passing year. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the area of federal versus state power.”
He dissented on some landmark decisions on social issues, including the 1973 ruling that women have a constitutional right to an abortion and from the 2003 rulings upholding gay rights and the use of race in student admissions at public universities.
The chief justice also helped decide the 2000 presidential election, joining the majority of justices who ended the Florida recount and therefore ensured President Bush’s victory.
“He is unquestionably one of the most important figures in the history of American law,” said Cass Sunstein, a liberal law professor at the University of Chicago, told the Associated Press.
“More than half a century has passed since William H. Rehnquist first came to the Supreme Court as a young law clerk. All of his years William Rehnquist revered the Constitution and laws of the United States,” the president said. “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.”
Despite his crucial role in shaping the American legal system, Rehnquist kept a low profile, shunning the limelight and continuing the ban on cameras in the Supreme Court chambers.
“We think our opinions speak for themselves, and we don’t feel any obligation to go out and make speeches saying how great they were,” Rehnquist said in a 2004 C-SPAN interview about one of his books.
Analysts also observed that the death of Rehnquist could complicate the politics of the court. The passing of Rehnquist marks the first time since 1971 that there would be two simultaneous openings on the court since Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement earlier this year. The news leaves in doubt the status of the hearings Specter was set to gavel to order Tuesday to consider the nomination of the man named to replace O’Connor, Appeals Court Judge John Roberts.
President Bush acknowledged the situation Sunday, saying “it will serve the best interests of the nation to fill those vacancies promptly.”
“I will choose in a timely manner a highly qualified nominee to succeed Chief Justice Rehnquist,” President Bush said. “As we look to the future of the Supreme Court, citizens of this nation can also look with pride and appreciation on the career of our late chief justice.”
For now, liberal justice John Paul Stevens, the most senior member of the court, will serve as chief justice.