He died at his home in Arlington, Va. at the age of 80 from thyroid cancer.
Word of the chief justice’s battle with thyroid cancer came out soon after he entered the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md., on Oct. 22, 2004, to undergo a tracheotomy. Cancer experts said his treatment indicated he likely had the most serious form of the disease, although neither Rehnquist nor his doctors revealed details about the extent of his illness at the time.
Born Oct. 1, 1924, Rehnquist grew up in Shorewood, a wealthy Milwaukee suburb, where his father William Benjamin was a wholesale paper salesman and his mother Margery Peck Rehnquist, a housewife and civic activist fluent in five languages, worked freelance as a translator for local companies. Early on he embraced his family’s respect for such Republican Party leaders as Herbert Hoover and Robert Taft.
After graduating, William Rehnquist entered Kenyon College but left after a year to enter the Army Air Corps during World War II. He served as a weather observer in the United States and North Africa from 1943 to 1946. After leaving the military, he transferred to Stanford University using first his GI benefits and then later working various part-time jobs. In 1948 he received a bachelor of arts degree and a master’s in political science. In 1950 he went to Harvard University to obtain a master’s in government. He went back to Stanford and graduated first in his law school Class of 1952, ahead of Sandra Day O’Connor who came in third, and now also serves on the court.
By this time his conservative views were solidly established, and he became adept at speaking about political issues of the day. He received a prestigious 18-month clerkship with Associate Justice Robert Jackson of the U.S. Supreme Court during the 1952-53 session. During his tenure, he drafted a memo for Jackson that stated racial segregation in education was “right and should be affirmed.” The memo later became an issue during his Senate confirmation hearings in 1971, where he argued that he had drafted the document to express the views of the justice and not his own.
In 1953, he married Natalie Cornell, a fellow Stanford student. Following the Supreme Court clerkship, Rehnquist returned to the West, settling into a private practice in Phoenix. He stayed there from 1953 to 1969, working at several law firms. While in Phoenix, he was active in the Republican Party and became friends with Richard Kleindeist, who later became deputy attorney general in the Nixon administration. With Kleindeist’s help, Rehnquist returned to Washington when President Nixon appointed him to serve as assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Affairs in the Department of Justice.
Two years later, in September 1971, U.S. Supreme Court Justices Marshall Harlan and Hugo Black both suffering from terminal illnesses, retired within one week of one another. President Nixon nominated Rehnquist to fill the seat vacated by Harlan.
Rehnquist served on the bench until 1986 when President Reagan nominated him to replace retiring Chief Justice Warren Burger. Rehnquist took that seat on Sept. 26, 1986, and Antonin Scalia took his seat as associate justice.
Rehnquist was easily the most conservative member of the court, and earned a reputation for being a lone dissenter. He wrote several opinions reversing the liberal trend of the Earl Warren court in criminal cases. He was active in maintaining the boundary between federal and state power. His belief that any move to weaken judicial independence would only serve to undermine the effectiveness of the federal courts was the cornerstone of his tenure at the court. In 1973, when the high court in Roe v. Wade overturned state laws against abortions, he dissented, arguing in favor of state power. He was also opposed to affirmative action.
The active conservatism of Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas was tempered in the 1990s by the emergence of a judicially restrained bloc of justices including Sandra Day O’Connor, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Liberals argued that his unwavering support on such issues as states’ rights served to endorse blatant discrimination against minorities and women.
New York Times reporter Stephen Engelberg has described Rehnquist as “a conservative jurist whose polished opinions have won grudging respect even from those who oppose his views.”
In addition to Roe v. Wade, Rehnquist participated in other pivotal rulings including voting for a reinstatement of death penalty laws with new procedures in 1976, dissenting in rulings upholding affirmative action in public contracting in 1978, and in 1983, writing an opinion allowing states to give parents a tax deduction for certain education expenses, including those at religious schools. More recently, Rehnquist presided over President Clinton’s impeachment trial, and the 2000 election recount trial which handed victory to George W. Bush.
Rehnquist proved an efficient administrator, significantly decreasing the court’s workload. Although he remained one of the most conservative justices, he also maintained a strong sense of independence. He had to endure charges that his opinions reflected his own personal politics more than actual judicial philosophy. However, when examined, it was noted that he often stood with the majority even if it crossed the established Republican line.
As chief justice, Rehnquist brought order to the court and won striking support for judicial restraint from his colleagues.
Rehnquist has written three books about the court and the American legal system: “The Supreme Court: How It Is, How It Was,” “Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson,” and “All the Laws But One: Civil Liberties in Wartime.”
He married Natalie Cornell in 1953. She died on Oct. 17, 1991 from ovarian cancer. They had three children: James, Janet and Nancy.
William Rehnquist Timeline
1943-46: Joined the Army Air Corps and served as a weather observer in the United States and North Africa during WWII
1952: Graduated first in his class from Stanford Law School
1952-53: Clerked for Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson
1969: Appointed by President Nixon to serve as assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Affairs in the Department of Justice
1971: Named by President Nixon to associate justice on the Supreme Court after Justice John Marshall Harlan retired
1986: Appointed by President Reagan to chief justice of the Supreme Court after Chief Justice Warren Burger retired
1999: Presided over the impeachment trial of President Clinton
2000: Led the court panel that voted to end the 2000 election recount, leading to George W. Bush’s becoming president