Saturday, September 03, 2005

Chief Justice William Rehnquist Dies

The 16th Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Willian Rehnquist, died of thyroid cancer at home in the presence of his three children this evening. He was 80 years old.

He had been appointed to the Supreme Court as a Justice by Richard Nixon in 1972 and elevated to Chief Justice by Ronald Reagan in 1986. For years he was a minority "conservative" amidst "liberal" collegues. But he won their respect and held together a diverse and unusually independent set of Justices during his term a Chief Justice.

His opinions, whether serving the majority or representing the minority, were succinct, erudite, readable, understandable and always grounded in fundamental constitutional tenets. If a position could not be explicitly supported by a direct constitutional premise, Rehnquist was hesitant to offer his full enthusiastic support, even when tenuous or "phantom" constitutional support had been cited in prior Court decisions.

By every account he was a good man in his private life as well. My thoughts on some of his more annoying quirks (particularly those gold stripes he added to his robe) can be found here, posted last summer when, while on vacation, I responded to a mistaken news report that he had resigned.

He will be difficult to replace. There are those who are speculating that President Bush will now amend his nomination of Judge Roberts to include the position of Chief Justice to his appointment. Certainly, it would be in the best interest of the Court if there was one Justice formally designated to captain the ship and keep things tidy.

Justice O'Conner has said she would continue until her replacement was confirmed. If Roberts becomes a replacement for Rehnquist instead of O'Conner, she may have to continue to sit on the Court until a new nominee can be confirmed. There can be absolutely no doubt that Bush's next nominee has already been chosen. That name will be announced as soon as a respectful period of mourning has passed for Rehnquist. I would expect that to be between 7 and 10 days.

Whoever replaces Rehnquist will have some big shoes to fill! What a blessing to the Republic should his successor be equal to the task.