The Supreme Court The Supreme Court - Image of hands holding a gavel.
Check local listings
Home Timeline Games Supreme Court History
Expanding Civil Rights
Biographies of the Robes
E-Mail this Page Print Format Glossary

Portrait of William Hubbs Rehnquist
Portrait of William Hubbs Rehnquist.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.
William Hubbs Rehnquist

b. October 1, 1924, Milwaukee, WI
d. September 3, 2005, Arlington, VA

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Sixteenth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

William Hubbs Rehnquist, the son of a paper salesman, grew up in a middle-class suburb of Milwaukee, in a family that was ardently conservative and Republican. He graduated from high school in 1942 and almost immediately entered the armed services, where he served briefly as a weather observer for the air forces in North Africa. After the war he attended Stanford University, graduating in 1948, Phi Beta Kappa, with a bachelor and a master of arts degree in political science. He attended Harvard University, receiving a master's degree in government in 1950, and went on to Stanford Law School, graduating in 1952 as valedictorian of his class (Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was a classmate and acquaintance).

Impressed by Rehnquist's performance, one of his professors arranged an interview for him with Justice Robert Jackson, who selected him as a clerk. Rehnquist provided the moderate Jackson with consistently conservative opinions. In one memo, regarding the decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Rehnquist wrote, "The court ... is being asked to read its own sociological views into the Constitution." He concluded, "I think Plessy v. Ferguson was right and should be re-affirmed." (The 1896 Plessy decision had validated segregation of railroad cars and established the concept of "separate but equal" that justified segregation throughout Southern society.)

In 1953 Rehnquist joined a law firm in Phoenix, Arizona, and became active in the local Republican Party. He campaigned for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election and, after Richard Nixon was elected president in 1969, Rehnquist was appointed a deputy attorney general in the department of Legal Counsel of the Justice Department. President Nixon then appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1971. During his hearing he repudiated the views expressed in his Plessy memo, saying they were not his but those of Justice Jackson. He was confirmed in the Democrat-dominated Senate by a 68-26 vote.

When he joined the Court, Rehnquist was by far its most conservative justice, and he frequently dissented from its decisions. He was so often alone in his opinions during his 14 years as associate justice that he set a Court record of 54 unaccompanied dissents, and during this period his clerks presented him with a figurine of the Lone Ranger. He opposed the Court's views establishing a constitutional right to privacy and upholding affirmative action, and, though they were not influential at the time, his opinions were thoughtful and articulate and provided the Court in later years with valuable ideas in formulating a more conservative philosophy.

In 1985 President Ronald Reagan nominated Rehnquist as chief justice and nominated Antonin Scalia to fill Rehnquist's seat. Rehnquist proved an effective administrator, building consensus among the justices whenever possible. Although the Court became more conservative, its decisions limited, rather than overturned, decisions by the Burger and Warren courts. In particular, it broadened the power of states, limited the rights of criminal defendants, narrowed women's rights to abortion, and constrained government programs of affirmative action. Anxious to reverse the Court's recent liberal record particularly in regards to criminal procedure, Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion in New York v. Quarles (1984) which established the public safety exception to the Miranda warnings. Rehnquist wrote that the Miranda warnings were "procedural safeguards" and are "not themselves rights protected by the Constitution." Rehnquist died in 2005 while still in office.

John Fox, a writer and documentary film producer, was series producer of the Emmy-winning PBS series HERITAGE: CIVILIZATION AND THE JEWS. Editor-in-chief of the award-winning HERITAGE DVD-ROM, he supervised the creation of its 540-map interactive atlas of world history. He is currently writing a book about the growth of communal intelligence over the centuries.

William O. Douglas Earl Warren John Marshall Harlan II William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Warren Burger view all biographies Hugo Black Felix Frankfurter Harry Blackmun Lewis F. Powell, Jr. William Rehnquist Sandra Day O'Connor