RIP Justice Rehnquist

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist This just in: US Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist is dead at the age of 80.

Rehnquist died this evening at his home in Virginia surrounded by his family. He had been suffering from thyroid cancer, which had been diagnosed last October.

After earning his law degree at Stanford University in 1950, the Milwaukee native worked as a Republican Party official who opposed school integration and served in the administration of President Richard Nixon as deputy attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. In 1972, he was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice.

More from Rehnquist’s biography on Oyez.org:

In his early days on the Court, Rehnquist was outspoken as the Court’s lone dissenter despite the presence of three other Republican appointees. He battled against the expansion of federal powers and advocated a strong vision of state’s rights. Rehnquist also differed from the majority’s view that the Fourteenth Amendment applied to non-racial issues such as the rights of women, children, and immigrants. Although his dissents at the time influenced very little of the Court’s conclusions, Rehnquist provided the future Court many valuable ideas which inspired the later conservative shift. Rehnquist’s views led him to oppose the majority in several important decisions. In his opinion, the liberal faction of the Court too often tried to shape public policy by expanding the scope of the law beyond its original meaning.

By 1986, Rehnquist held significant persuasive power. After Chief Justice Burger retired from the Court, President Reagan nominated Rehnquist to replace him. Liberals howled in protest. Many painted Rehnquist as a racist and conservative extremist. Opponents alleged racist behavior (an old charge) when Rehnquist was a Republican official in Phoenix. Others charged that he had mishandled a family trust. In the end, however, these accusations remained unproved and the Senate confirmed Rehnquist by a solid majority.

As chief justice, Rehnquist won the respect of his colleagues through his efficient management of court affairs. Rehnquist has also revealed a moderation in his views by voting with liberals to protect gay rights and free speech.

In addition, Rehnquist voted to give George Bush the presidency in the still-disputed election of 2000. He opposed the successful Supreme Court reversal of Colorado’s anti-GLBT Amendment 2, and when the court put an end to unjust sodomy laws throughout the land in Lawrence v. Texas, Rehnquist dissented. He was also one of the two justices who voted against Roe v. Wade, the controversial ruling that overturned state laws banning or restricting abortion and ensured women’s reproductive rights under law.

Only last month, shortly after the announcement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s resignation, Rehnquist announced that he would not step down from his post. He continued to serve despite the difficulty he faced in coping with the effects of the cancer.

The news is sure to spur much apprehension over who will take his seat and over the new makeup of the nation’s highest court. In the meantime, however, the nation surely will mourn the loss of a jurist whose effect on US law and jurisprudence, for good and ill, has been monumental.

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