William Rehnquist

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William Hubbs Rehnquist in 1986

William Hubbs Rehnquist (October 1, 1924September 3, 2005) was an American lawyer and jurist who served on the Supreme Court of the United States for 33 years, as an associate justice from 1972 to 1986 and as Chief Justice from 1986 until his death in 2005. Considered a conservative, Rehnquist favored a conception of federalism that emphasized the Tenth Amendment's reservation of powers to the states. Under this view of federalism, the court, for the first time since the 1930s, struck down an act of Congress as exceeding its power under the Commerce Clause.


  • [I]f...a society adopts a constitution and incorporates in that constitution safeguards of individual liberty, these safeguards do indeed take on a general moral rightness or goodness. They assume a general social acceptance neither because of any intrinsic worth nor because of any unique origins in someone's idea of natural justice but instead simply because they have been incorporated in a constitution by the people.
  • It is, I believe, impossible to justify the sacrifice of even a portion of our historic individual freedom for a purpose such as [giving blacks, Latinos and Jews the right to be served in local motels, hotels and restaurants].

Judicial opinions

At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The First Amendment recognizes no such thing as a "false" idea.
  • Pregnancy is of course confined to women, but it is in other ways significantly different from the typical covered disease or disability.
    • General Electric Co. v. Gilbert, 429 U.S. 125 (1976) (majority opinion); the ruling allowed GE's employee disability insurance plan to exclude conditions arising from pregnancy.
  • This result […] will daily stand as a veritable sword of Damocles over every succeeding president and his advisers.
    • Nixon v. Administrator of General Services, 433 U.S. 425 (1977) (dissent); the court ruled 7–2 that Congress could seize Richard Nixon’s presidential papers.
  • The Constitution requires that Congress treat similarly situated persons similarly, not that it engage in gestures of superficial equality.
    • Rostker v. Goldberg, 453 U.S. 57 at 80 (1981) (majority opinion); this ruling upheld a military draft for males only.
  • No amount of repetition of historical errors in judicial opinions can make the errors true. The "wall of separation between church and State" is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.
  • The considered professional judgment of the Air Force is that the traditional outfitting of personnel in standardized uniforms encourages the subordination of personal preferences and identities in favor of the overall group mission.
    • Goldman v. Weinberger, 475 U.S. 503 (1986) (majority opinion); the ruling upheld the military's prohibition of a Jewish officer from wearing a yarmulke indoors while in uniform.
  • [Jury selection] is best based upon seat-of-the-pants instincts, which are undoubtedly crudely stereotypical and may in many cases be hopelessly mistaken.
    • Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986) (dissenting opinion).
  • At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The freedom to speak one's mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions. The First Amendment recognizes no such thing as a "false" idea.
  • A public library does not acquire Internet terminals in order to create a public forum for Web publishers to express themselves, any more than it collects books in order to provide a public forum for the authors of books to speak.
    • United States v. American Library Association, 539 U.S. 194 (2003) (plurality opinion); the case concerned whether Congress could require libraries receiving Federal subsidies for Internet connectivity to install filtering software.
  • [T]he Constitution does not guarantee the right to acquire information at a public library without any risk of embarrassment.
    • ibid.
  • To the extent that libraries wish to offer unfiltered access, they are free to do so without federal assistance.
    • ibid.
  • It is about time the Court faced the fact that the white people in the South don't like the colored people; the Constitution restrains them from effecting this dislike through state action, but it most assuredly did not appoint the Court as a sociological watchdog to rear up every time private discrimination raises its admittedly ugly head. To the extent that this decision advances the frontier of state action and 'social gain,' it pushes back the frontier of freedom of association and majority rule.

Books, articles, and speeches

  • The Supreme Court is an institution far more dominated by centrifugal forces, pushing toward individuality and independence, than it is by centripetal forces pulling for hierarchical ordering and institutional unity.
    • Address at the University of Minnesota Law School; quoted in The New York Times (20 October 1984).
  • Somewhere "out there," beyond the walls of the courthouse, run currents and tides of public opinion which lap at the courtroom door.
  • An oft-heard description of the Supreme Court is that it is the ultimate protector in our society of the liberties of the individual. This phrase describes an important role of the Supreme Court, but by ignoring other equally important functions of the Court, it has a potential for mischief. It is a fairly short leap from this language to a feeling that the US Constitution is somehow "vindicated" every time a claim of individual right against government is upheld, and is not vindicated whenever such a claim is not upheld. But this, of course, cannot be the case. The role of the Supreme Court is to uphold those claims of individual liberty that it finds are well-founded in the Constitution, and to reject other claims against the government that it concludes are not well-founded. Its role is no more to exclusively uphold the claims of the individual than it is to exclusively uphold the claims of the government: It must hold the constitutional balance true between these claims.
    • The Supreme Court: How it Was, How it Is (1987).
  • When you are young and impecunious, society conditions you to exchange time for money, and this is quite as it should be. Very few people are hurt by having to work for a living. But as you become more affluent, it somehow is very, very difficult to reverse that process and begin trading money for time.
    • Quoted in Time magazine (13 June 1988).
  • I've often started off with a lawyer joke, a complete caricature of a lawyer who's been nasty, greedy, and unethical. But I've stopped that practice. I gradually realized that the lawyers in the audience didn't think the jokes were funny and the non-lawyers didn't know they were jokes.
    • 1997 speech at University of Virginia Law School, as quoted in Marc Galanter, Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture (2006), p. 3.
  • Actually, the Swedish genealogists were so good that I found out more than I wanted to about my Swedish ancestors: one of them in the 17th century was executed for having embezzled funds from an estate for which he was the steward.
    • Address at a Swedish Colonial Society luncheon in Philadelphia (9 April 2001).
  • As for the name Rehnquist, I am quite uncertain as to its origin. Under the Swedish patronymic system of naming, my grandfather and his brothers would have been named Anderson, since Anders was the name of their father. "Quist" in Swedish means branch, I am told. For example, "Lindquist" means lime branch or linden branch, and Palmquist means palm branch. The best I can come up with is that the "rehn" in my name refers to a small village near the farm on which my grandfather grew up.
    • Address at a Swedish Colonial Society luncheon in Philadelphia (9 April 2001).
  • It has been said that Sweden's loss has been America's gain, and I think this is true. Swedish immigrants and their descendants have contributed a great deal to America and it is worthwhile to remember our Swedish heritage.
    • Address at a Swedish Colonial Society luncheon in Philadelphia (9 April 2001).
  • A judge who is a 'strict constructionist' in constitutional matters will generally not be favorably inclined toward claims of either criminal defendants or civil rights plaintiffs—the latter two groups having been the principal beneficiaries of the Supreme Court's 'broad constructionist' reading of the Constitution.
    • As quoted in The Rehnquist Choice: The Untold Story of the Nixon Appointment That Redefined the Supreme Court (2001) by John Dean; quoted in an article at Slate.
  • Inadequate compensation seriously compromises the judicial independence fostered by life tenure. That low salaries might force judges to return to the private sector rather than stay on the bench risks affecting judicial performance. . . Every time an experienced judge leaves the bench, the nation suffers temporary loss in judicial productivity. Diminishing judicial salaries affects not only those who have become judges but also the pool of those willing to be considered for a position on the federal bench.
  • Our judges will not continue to represent the diverse face of America if only the well-to-do or the mediocre are willing to become judges.
    • ibid.
  • The framers of our Constitution came up with two major contributions to the art of government. The first was the idea of an executive not dependent on the political support of the legislature. The second was the idea of the judiciary independent of the executive and legislative branches.
    • ibid.
  • I want to put to rest the speculation and unfounded rumors of my imminent retirement... I am not about to announce my retirement. I will continue to perform my duties as chief justice as long as my health permits.
    • Written statement reacting to speculation that he might retire from the US Supreme Court after Sandra Day O'Connor declared that she would. (July 2005).
  • Well, I think it's a very good job. One of the most appealing things about it is that... it enables you to participate in some way and to some extent in the way the country is governed but you're able to maintain a private life as well.
    • As quoted in BBC article on his death. (4 September 2005).

Booknotes television interview (July 5, 1992)

  • I think Alexander Hamilton has received a little bit of short shrift from history, and I think Jefferson has been treated a little bit too generously. I admire them both, but I admire them both about equally.
  • If you could say of any one individual that the court as an institution is the length and shadow of that individual, surely it would be John Marshall.
  • Perhaps you should say there should be mandatory retirement even of members of the court, members of the federal judiciary. I'm sure there can be questions about whether one does as good work when you get into your—you know, I'm 67.
  • The court has built a great deal of prestige, and I think is generally quite well thought of as a public institution in the country. It is always possible for the court to overreach its proper bounds and perhaps declare a lot of laws unconstitutional and frustrate the will of the majority in a way that it ought not be frustrated. In that sense, it poses a danger, but not the same sort of perhaps very active danger that a run-away Congress or runaway executive would.
  • Well, it's just a sense of personal satisfaction. Just like taking a good photograph or painting a picture or playing a good golf game or something, it's the thing in itself that justifies it.
    • On writing.

Quotes about Rehnquist

  • All nine of the justices on the Court at that time - Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, O'Connor, Kennedy, Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer - were extremely intelligent. But even in that room Rehnquist stood out. He had been first in his class at Stanford Law and he had a photographic memory, unlike any I'd ever encountered. My first impression of him proved right. He really didn't need law clerks. He was so damned smart. Most of the justices had law clerks prepare long bench memos on cases. Rehnquist didn't need that. He just wanted three-page summaries of the facts. He knew all the rest already.
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