William H. Rehnquist
GINA HOLLAND and CALVIN WOODWARD
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (Sun September 4, 2005)(AP) _ Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, a one-time maverick who built a precarious conservative majority on cases touching everything from schools to the presidency, fought his final struggle away from the public square.
Ravaged by thyroid cancer disclosed nearly a year ago, Rehnquist labored over months of declining health to stay at his job, gaunt yet stoic as the disease progressed. He died Saturday night at age 80, surrounded by his grown children in his Virginia home.
Rehnquist's last opinion, in June, upheld a Ten Commandments display in Texas, a fitting finale in a career that tested boundaries between church and state, favored a shift in powers from Washington to states and involved two extraordinary interventions in the executive branch _ the impeachment trial of President Clinton and settlement of the 2000 election in President Bush's favor.
Presiding over a divided court in divisive times, Rehnquist nevertheless was credited with ``efficiency, good humor and absolute impartiality,' in the words of liberal Justice John Paul Stevens a few years ago, echoed by many others now.
Rehnquist was curt yet collegial, caustically reining in long-winded lawyers one moment, showing a warmer side the next, punctuated by a throaty laugh heard mostly in private. He was a passionate student of legal history who turned a poker face to the court, with an occasional arch of the eyebrows through large glasses.
In a poignant twist in Bush's inauguration in January, Rehnquist smiled wanly as he came out of the seclusion forced by his cancer and administered the oath of office for his fifth and final time. Altogether, he missed five months of court sessions.
Announcing his death, court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said: ``The chief justice battled thyroid cancer since being diagnosed last October and continued to perform his duties on the court until a precipitous decline in his health the last couple of days.'
Rehnquist passed up a chance to retire in the summer, saying he wanted to stay on the bench as long as his health would allow. He went through radiation and chemotherapy treatments and had a trachea tube inserted to help him breathe.
His death opens a rare second vacancy on a court already in flux, with Bush nominee John Roberts about to begin Senate confirmation hearings to replace the retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Bush was expected to choose a newcomer as chief justice, bypassing such polarizing conservatives on the court as Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Even so, the enormous stakes _ the chance to shape the balance of the highest court for years to come _ make a clamorous political struggle certain.
Possible replacements include Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and federal courts of appeals judges J. Michael Luttig, Edith Clement, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Michael McConnell, Emilio Garza, and James Harvie Wilkinson III. Others mentioned are former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, lawyer Miguel Estrada and former deputy attorney general Larry Thompson.
Rehnquist helped start and then led the high court's drift from its liberal moorings of the 1960s. Once dubbed the Lone Ranger because of his solo dissents, he found more company and influence over the years, thanks to succeeding appointments of conservative justices and his elevation by President Reagan to chief justice in 1986.
The ``Rehnquist five' on the court of nine voted together to strike down federal laws intended to protect female victims of violent crime and keep guns away from schools, resolving that those issues were better dealt with at the local level.
They held together in the 5-4 decision that essentially handed the inconclusive 2000 election to Bush over Democrat Al Gore. Although insulated from politics, Rehnquist did not ignore political sensitivities entirely. After the Bush v. Gore decision that critics said would tarnish the court's reputation for objectivity, he cited opinion polls indicating people held the court in no less regard.
His court decided that public schools can sometimes be used for Bible study classes, that Congress can force public libraries receiving federal money to use filters to block Internet smut, that random drug tests can be given to students in competitive after-school activities or teams. The court also limited the use of affirmative action in college admissions and laid out rules for suing over discrimination in the workplace.
But Rehnquist did not always prevail.
Over his objections the court legalized abortion, barred Ten Commandments displays in public schools, prohibited student-led prayer at high school football games and said gay couples cannot be prosecuted for having sex.
Rehnquist was the last member still on the court who voted on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion. He opposed that decision, writing: ``Even today, when society's views on abortion are changing, the very existence of the debate is evidence that the `right' to an abortion is not so universally accepted as (Roe) would have us believe.'
He believed there was a place for some religion in government. He wrote the 5-4 decision in 2002 that said parents may use public tax money to send their children to religious schools. Two years later, he was distressed when the court passed up a chance to declare that the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is constitutional.
``The phrase 'under God' in the pledge seems, as a historical matter, to sum up the attitude of the nation's leaders, and to manifest itself in many of our public observances,' he wrote.
Rehnquist leaves without accomplishing the legal revolution he had hoped for as the nation's 16th chief justice. As Rehnquist read it, the Constitution lets states outlaw abortion and sponsor prayers in public schools but bars them from giving special, affirmative-action preferences to racial minorities and women. The court he led disagreed.
Affable in one-on-one encounters, Rehnquist could become socially awkward in the formal appearances he so disliked. ``It seems I've shaken hands with about 5,000 people in the last year,' he groused in 1987, adding that he couldn't remember most of them.
Rehnquist's grandparents emigrated to the United States from Sweden in 1880 and settled in Chicago. His grandfather was a tailor, his grandmother a school teacher. Rehnquist grew up in Wisconsin, the son of a paper salesman and a translator.
He planned to be a college professor, but a test showed him suited to the legal field. In 1952, he graduated first in his class at Stanford University's law school, where he briefly dated O'Connor, the high court's first female justice.
Rehnquist caused great amusement when he departed from tradition by adding four shiny gold stripes to each sleeve of his black robe in 1995. The flourish was inspired by a costume in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.
He led a quiet social life outside the court. Until his illness, he walked daily, as tonic for a chronic bad back, and played tennis with his law clerks. He enjoyed bridge, spending time with his eight grandchildren, charades and a monthly poker game with Scalia and a revolving cast of powerful Washington men. He liked beer, and smoked in private.
The only chief justice older than Rehnquist was Roger Taney, who presided over the high court in the mid-1800s until his death at 87. Rehnquist was also closing in on the record for longest-serving justice. Only four men were on the court 34 years or longer.
Rehnquist was somewhat of a surprise choice when President Nixon nominated him to the court in 1971. He was a 47-year-old Justice Department lawyer with a reputation for brilliance and unbending conservative ideology when he was chosen to fill the seat of retiring Justice John Marshall Harlan. Rehnquist, who practiced law in Phoenix before moving to Washington, was the court's youngest member.
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