Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Passing of a Chief Justice

William Rehnquist passed away last night at the age of 80. One of the greatest chiefs in the last century, Rehnquist was reviled by the left as a partisan hack, a perception that was reinforced to some by his vote in Gore v. Bush. The reason? He voted against Roe v. Wade, the decision that has become the paradigm of liberal jurisprudence.

Rehnquist's tenure on the court saw it move in a more conservative direction. The Court for the first time in generations curtailed Congress' Commerce Clause power. It upheld the use of government vouchers for private, including religious, schools. It also denied the existence of a constitutional right to assisted suicide.

But the Court was not as conservative as some pundits would have you believe. It upheld a public universities' affirmative action program. It struck down a number of state laws that allowed execution of minors. It denied a state's ability to regulate gay conduct. And it allowed a state to withhold scholarships from people majoring in religious studies, a decision written by Rehnquist himself.

So what will be Rehnquist's legacy? He should be remembered as a good leader, someone who managed to write minimalist opinions that answered the questions and nothing more, and a unifying force on the Court. But he should most be remembered as the leader of the Court that began to move the pendulum back to the center, after years of the Warren Court's liberalism.

Whatever he is remembered as, he will be remembered as one of the most influential chief justices in history.

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