The man beneath the robe


WASHINGTON - William Hubbs Rehnquist was a great chief justice.

A Midwesterner born of modest means, he enlisted in the Army in 1943 at 18. Law has too long been a profession of the privileged few, and it is fitting, and worth noting, that the chief justice was an enlisted man serving as a weather observer in North Africa during World War II.

After nearly 20 years in private practice in Arizona and government service, in 1971, Mr. Rehnquist was nominated to the Supreme Court, where he served for 34 years, the last 19 as chief justice.

I had the enormous privilege to clerk for Chief Justice Rehnquist in 1996 and 1997. My two co-clerks and I got to know a man of tremendous intellect, principle, humor and modesty.

Even among Supreme Court justices, his intellect was staggering. Blessed with an eidetic memory, the chief seemed to know all the law that ever was. Routinely, he would amaze his clerks by quizzing them on the specific citation to some case. Of course, the clerks would never know, and he would reply with a smile to check this volume and this page of the U.S. Reports. He was always right.

Over the years, he did not think of cases as the legal abstractions we lawyers usually do. Instead, cases were specific, personal memories to him. Thus, when he thought of, say, Smith v. Jones, he'd recall, "Oh, yes, that was the case where Thurgood Marshall wanted the court to do such and such, but the majority didn't agree." For him, cases comprised an ongoing dialogue among decades of justices over what precisely the law should be.

The chief had strong, unwavering principles. When he arrived on the court in 1972, it was a different time: The court was seen as galloping left, prompting "Impeach Earl Warren" bumper stickers across the country.

The court had dramatically expanded the rights of criminals, enlarged the power of the federal government and interpreted the First Amendment in a way that many believed manifested a real hostility to religion. Chief Justice Rehnquist did not agree, and so he dissented alone, over and over - earning the nickname the "Lone Ranger."

Perhaps most surprising was how down to earth he was. He was, to an unbelievable extent, a regular guy. Completely unpretentious, he enjoyed simple tastes. His favorite lunch was a cheeseburger, a Miller Lite and a cigarette.

Once a week, he played tennis with his clerks. We'd play on a public court, and no one ever recognized the older gentleman playing doubles with three young lawyers. And he'd have us over to his house to play charades. One of my favorite memories is his lying on his belly on the floor, pantomiming firing a rifle and mouthing "pow, pow," as he acted out All Quiet on the Western Front.

He loved sports, especially the Green Bay Packers, and every week we'd wager $1 on that week's games. He loved keeping in touch with the weather - he had the National Weather Service on speed dial - and geography (so much so that advocates before the court learned to be ready with the precise details about where exactly their case arose).

He was funny and quick-witted. Each week, rather than go in his official limousine, one of the clerks would drive all four of us to tennis. Once, when a clerk sitting at a red light became distracted and just sat there when the light turned green, the chief leaned over and observed, "It doesn't have any more colors."

And he was unfailingly decent. He knew everybody's name in the court, every police officer and every janitor, and he treated everyone with fairness and dignity. For that reason, the respect he enjoyed from his colleagues was unparalleled.

Ted Cruz, solicitor general of Texas, is a former law clerk to Chief Justice Rehnquist and was a pallbearer at his funeral.

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