Walter Dellinger: One of the 3 Greatest Chief Justices





The Rehnquist Court belongs to history. William H. Rehnquist will likely be seen as one of the three most influential chief justices in history, surpassed perhaps only by John Marshall and Earl Warren. Whether that influence was, on balance, benign will be one of history's great debates.

There will be little dispute that Rehnquist was a great leader and effective administrator of the Supreme Court and the national judiciary. He ran a tight ship in the great marble temple that houses the court. Every justice with whom I have spoken in recent years has noted that the court was functioning well under his leadership. Because of the power of his intellect—many law clerks thought him the smartest justice on a generally smart court—he quickly grasped the key issues in each of the complex and numerous cases that came before the court. As a consequence, he was able to lead the court's discussions in conference with efficiency and dispatch. Some colleagues thought he presided over these confidential sessions with too much efficiency, sometimes unduly limiting discussion. But all seemed to prefer his strong hand to the wandering, confused leadership of his predecessor Warren Burger. The effect of installing a new chief will be more profound than we can easily grasp. The new chief—if he or she comes from outside the court—will face a daunting task of leading such a powerful and experienced group.

Rehnquist could be gracious in social settings. Although I was of the "other party," he was warm and welcoming when I became acting solicitor general, inviting me over for tea and discussing how he thought the office could best be conducted. More recently, at a dinner at our home the night before I interviewed him publicly at Duke University Law School, he was relaxed and witty, discussing movies and popular culture with sparkle and, almost, verve. On the bench, he was another story—a most fearsome and incisive inquisitor. His questioning was sharp, and usually fair, but at times unnecessarily abusive to inexperienced advocates. He did not suffer fools gladly....



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