The death of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist late Saturday night prompted the Yale community to reflect on the legacy of one of the longest serving justices in the Court’s history and to speculate on the future of the Court.
Rehnquist died at the age of 80 late Saturday night after battling thyroid cancer for nearly a year. He served a total of 33 years on the bench, 19 of which were spent as Chief Justice.
Several Yale Law School professors spoke respectfully of Rehnquist, a conservative stalwart nicknamed the “Lone Ranger” for his often singular dissenting opinions in the early years of his tenure. Faculty members agreed that Rehnquist was a capable justice and that his influence on the recent history of the Court was immense.
“History will remember William Rehnquist as an able chief justice, who led through efficiency, brilliance and charm,” Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh said in a statement. “The Rehnquist Court really began decades before he became chief, under Warren Burger’s chief justiceship, when Rehnquist became the leading counterweight for the coalition that swung the Court back to the right after the Warren Court era.”
The passing of Rehnquist follows the July announcement that Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will step down from the Court. The convergence of these two events creates two vacancies on the Court, a situation which has not existed since 1971, when Justices Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan retired. The Court requires a quorum of six justices.
While the existence of two vacancies on the Supreme Court negates the normally binding power of the Court’s opinions, it otherwise presents no procedural difficulties, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge and Yale Law professor emeritus Guido Calabresi said. Calabresi clerked for Black in 1958 and 1959.
“It’s not that unusual,” Calabresi said. “It just means that if there are any opinions that come down while the Court does not have its full complement — if that opinion does not have nine justices on it — it is not binding.”
Law professor Robert Gordon also believes the Court will become more conservative once Rehnquist and O’Connor’s vacancies are filled. Gordon said he thinks it is plausible that Roberts, currently O’Connor’s nominated successor, will instead replace Rehnquist as chief justice. Throughout his tenure, Rehnquist’s primary concern was for preserving the power of the Court, Gordon said. He added that Roberts seems to have a similar legislative agenda and personality to Rehnquist’s.
“Roberts has many of the same kind of administrative virtues that Rehnquist had. Like Rehnquist, he is a relatively low-key, affable kind of person,” Gordon said. “In Roberts, Rehnquist will have a successor who will generally carry on his program.”
The tenure of Rehnquist has been nuanced and cannot be characterized as decidedly conservative or liberal, said law professor Anthony Kronman.
“He will obviously be remembered for having led the Court in a generally conservative direction, though there were surprises and inconsistences along the way that leave behind a record which is more cluttered and less clear than ideologues either on the right or the left might think,” Kronman said.