Rehnquist's tenure offers Roberts lessons
Attention John Roberts: William H. Rehnquist's 19-year tenure as chief justice offers some useful lessons on how to be a successful leader of the Supreme Court.
When elevated to that job in 1986, some clerks wondered whether the 62-year-old conservative could lead the court effectively after dissenting in so many of its decisions since he became an associate justice in 1972. But Rehnquist showed little doubt that he could stage a conservative revival on an aging court known for liberal rulings that established a right to an abortion and set a strict line between church and state.
Stern in keeping lawyers punctual in oral arguments, the Nixon appointee nicknamed the "Lone Ranger" because of his solo dissents was genial with his colleagues and gave them equal speaking time — regardless of their ideology — in private justice conferences.
"I used to worry about every little footnote," said Rehnquist, who later built majorities with several new Republican appointees. "Now I realize you just need five votes."
Rehnquist served 33 years — the third longest in court history. He was chief justice for 19. His mixed legacy as an efficient administrator who stemmed, but did not completely reverse, the court's liberal tide from the 1950s to the 1970s offers useful lessons on what makes a chief justice successful.
It is a complex mix of qualities — from having the gravitas and political savvy to persuade colleagues and win over the public, to the intellect and organizational skills to issue decisions and run the massive federal court system.
Other factors — such as having at least four like-minded colleagues to back a chief justice's philosophy — might be out of the chief's control.
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