The Chief Justice of the United States, William H. Rehnquist, is dead. Gravely ill these past several years, his demise was long expected. Supreme Court justices are supposed to serve for life, and like everything else Chief Justice Rehnquist did, he was punctilious in remaning at his post to the very end. "Genius is diligence," the German general vonMoltke wrote, and Rehnquist, during his long public career, exemplified that kind of genius, aware that he was performing not only a job, but the highest calling a person can have, public service for the benefit of his state.
Appointed to the Court by President Nixon, during the darkest days of the Warren Court, Justice Rehnquist, a latter-day Great Dissenter in the mold of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, defended the Constitution and the United States, as best he could, against the ravages of a Warren Court majority determined to exalt the power of unelected judges and the liberal state. As time went on, and the composition of the Court changed, Chief Justice Rehnquist gradually built a majority that defended the rights of the seperate States, and that did its best to roll-back the excesses of the runaway Warren Court. His reward was to be named Chief Justice, by President Reagan in 1986.
According to the Washington Post, often critical of the Chief Justice, the Rehnquist Court "strengthened the legal position of the police, paved the way for swifter executions, defined constitutional limits on federal power and permitted indirect funding of religious schools." Chief Justice Rehnquist would probably accept that as a fair epitaph, but, rightly, consider this record an achievement, and not as matters to be deplored, as the Post editorial writers certainly would.
Less commendably, during Rehnquist's tenure, the Supreme Court continued the trend, present from the 1930's forward, of expanding its role in American political life. Probably, Chief Justice Rehnquist was a mostly unwilling participant in this expansion, which was produced more by the combination of a liberal-minded bar willing to encourage litigation by liberal politicans, media and theorists unable to carry their points politically.
Chief Justice Rehnquist's effectiveness at holding back the liberal tide will be missed.