Rehnquist leaves void in Court

William Rehnquist, the chief justice of the United States and Milwaukee-area native, died late Saturday night after a prolonged battle with thyroid cancer. He was 80 years old.

Rehnquist was nominated for associate justice of the Supreme Court by President Nixon in October 1971. In 1986, President Reagan nominated him for chief justice of the United States, the "head" of the Supreme Court.

His tenure on the United States' highest court was marked by many landmark cases and legal issues, not the least of which was the 1973 case Roe v. Wade. That case established that a woman's right to an abortion was protected by the umbrella of right to privacy. Rehnquist was one of two justices to dissent on that case.

"He was at the center of that case," said Christopher Wolfe, a professor of political science and Supreme Court expert.

Rehnquist's dissent was based not as much on his views of abortion as it was on the government's role in regulating abortion.

"He felt this is just not something the court should be dealing with," Wolfe said.

Janet Boles, political science professor, said his career fell into two distinct periods: before Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's appointment to the court, and after.

"He was a neanderthal before Sandra Day O'Connor," Boles said. After O'Connor joined the court and began to exert her moderating influence, he was more likely to issue decisions in accord with feminist views, she said.

Upon being diagnosed with thyroid cancer — a disease that later necessitated a tracheotomy and chemotherapy — in June, Rehnquist staunchly refused to consider retirement as an option.

"I want to put to rest the speculation and unfounded rumors of my imminent retirement," he said in a statement released shortly after his diagnosis. "I am not about to announce my retirement. I will continue to perform my duties as chief justice as long as my health permits."

Rehnquist's death means President Bush now has two appointments to the Supreme Court to make. O'Connor announced her retirement earlier this year. Her position has not yet been filled. She has agreed to serve on the court until a successor is found.

Rehnquist was born in Milwaukee and lived in Shorewood, a suburb on Milwaukee's eastern border. Although he did not attend Marquette — he went to Stanford and Harvard — he was Marquette's commencement speaker in 1988.

"It was actually quite good," Wolfe said of the speech, at which he was present. "He didn't talk about the Supreme Court and public affairs too much, but he talked about ordinary things, like family and the importance of family life. It was a good commencement address."

This article was published in The Marquette Tribune on September 6, 2005.