Rehnquist's unfinished agenda





The saga of William H. Rehnquist at the US Supreme Court is very much the story of a long-term Republican campaign to conquer an institution that had become a citadel of liberal power in the 1960s.

Now, with the passing of the chief justice on Saturday evening, legal historians and constitutional scholars are assessing the Rehnquist legacy. It is an assessment that began months ago amid speculation of Rehnquist's possible retirement.

He is being called a highly effective chief justice, both in terms of his impact on the law and the efficient and congenial way he managed an institution often at the center of America's white-hot culture wars.

Others say his influence was undercut by the dynamics of a splintered court largely controlled, in high-profile cases at least, by two centrist swing voters - Justices Sandra Day O'Connor (who announced her retirement July 1) and Anthony Kennedy.

In the end, the high court never emerged under Chief Justice Rehnquist as a conservative juggernaut. To some relieved liberals and disappointed conservatives, the Rehnquist era might be remembered as "the counterrevolution that wasn't," says Tinsley Yarbrough, a Supreme Court biographer and historian.

But it was not for lack of presidential effort. Since 1969, 10 of the last 12 justices have been appointed by Republican presidents. And while the court's center has shifted to the right, the so-called Rehnquist court nonetheless retained a penchant for producing major liberal landmarks.

Over Rehnquist dissents, the high court upheld abortion, affirmative action, gay rights, online pornography, and flag burning. It struck down capital punishment for juveniles and the mentally retarded, ordered the all-male Virginia Military Institute to accept female cadets, and struck down state regulation of so-called partial-birth abortions.

This is not exactly the wish list that Republican presidents may have had in mind when selecting their Supreme Court nominees. But such liberal victories should not obscure the broader significance of Rehnquist's legacy, analysts say.



comments powered by Disqus