Today in 1986: William Rehnquist confirmed as chief justice

September 17, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryTwenty-four years ago today, the Senate voted to make William Rehnquist the 16th chief justice of the Supreme Court. And while he easily won confirmation, many Senate Democrats took issue with some of his judicial opinions and memos dating back to the 1950s. As a result, his margin of victory – 65-33 – was one of the narrowest ever for a successful nominee.

Rehnquist was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1971 by President Richard Nixon, and he soon proved to be a steadfast conservative who refused to compromise his views. During his first decade on the high court, Rehnquist was the solitary dissenter so often that he earned the nickname “The Lone Ranger.”

William Rehnquist's swearing in as chief justice, 1986With Ronald Reagan’s presidency came additional conservative voices on the court, including Sandra Day O’Connor and Antonin Scalia. When Chief Justice Warren E. Burger announced his retirement in 1986, Reagan saw an opportunity to nudge the court even further in a conservative direction.

“I nominated William Rehnquist because I believe he will be a chief justice of historic stature,” Reagan said.

Rehnquist’s ascendancy may have been opposed by many senators, but it was welcome news to his fellow justices, including those on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. Despite their differences, Rehnquist was good friends with liberal justices William Brennan Jr. and William O. Douglas. Thurgood Marshall would later called him a “great chief justice,” and John Paul Stevens praised his “efficiency, good humor, and absolute impartiality” as the leader of the court.

Rehnquist won over his colleagues with his wry sense of humor, his unpretentious personality, and an impeccable sense of fairness. During justices’ conferences, Rehnquist would not allow anyone to speak twice before everyone had spoken once, and he never doled out two opinion-writing assignments to anyone until each justice had been assigned one.

By the time of his death in 2005, Rehnquist had served on the Supreme Court for more than 33 years, including nearly 19 years as chief justice – the fourth-longest term ever.

A few more random facts about the 16th chief justice:

  • During World War II, Rehnquist served in North Africa as a weather observer for the Army Air Corps.
  • He graduated from Stanford Law School in 1952 with Sandra Day O’Connor, and the two future colleagues even went out on a few dates.
  • While serving in Nixon’s Justice Department during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the president once referred to Rehnquist as “the guy dressed like a clown,” referring to his pink shirt and psychedelic necktie.