A much-awarded legal journalist serves up an investigative biography of the controversial, late chief justice.
Famously distrustful of the press, William Rehnquist (1924–2005) divulged little about himself during his three decades on the nation’s highest court. CQ Press president and publisher Jenkins (Ladies’ Man: The Life and Trials of Marvin Mitchelson, 1992, etc.) uncovers some nuggets about the private man, some amusing—he loved making small wagers on almost any proposition; he drafted a novel repeatedly rejected by publishers—some startling—during the early 1980s “he was desperately, abusively addicted to prescription pain killers.” The author credits Rehnquist with high intelligence and good humor and persuasively argues that his temperament most closely resembled his ideological counterpart, the iconoclastic William O. Douglas. He uncovers the origins of Rehnquist’s conservatism and explores his law school career, his clerkship under Robert Jackson, his rise in the Goldwater and his tenure in the Mitchell Justice Department under Nixon. But when he turns to Rehnquist’s jurisprudence, Jenkins unrelentingly scorns the man he blames for the court’s current politicization. He flays Rehnquist as an unprincipled conservative who looked first to the desired result and only then to the reasoning, who valued efficiency over justice, who ignored precedent, who favored broad governmental power over civil rights, who lacked any “consistent constitutional theory” save for his own consistently “reactionary ideology.” Many of our laws later conformed to the famously lone dissents of Rehnquist’s early career, but Jenkins attributes this not to the chief’s leadership, but rather to the court’s changing composition. As with many court commentators, Jenkins equates “maturation” or “growth” with change, almost always a change from right to left. That Rehnquist “could not evolve,” the author takes as a huge black mark against the man who “made it respectable to be an expedient conservative on the Court.”
The Rehnquist legacy harshly gaveled down.