William Rehnquist

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William Rehnquist was an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1972-1986) and the 16th Chief Justice(1986-2005).


Rehnquist was nearly not confirmed as an associate justice on the Supreme Court, as early in his career, as a clerk on the Supreme Court for Justice Jackson, he had written a memorandum expressing some discontent with Brown v. Board of Education, an earlier litmus test for the approval of a justice by the Judicial Committee of the Senate. Rehnquist insisted that his written statements were merely advisory opinions drafted to Justice Jackson, who he claimed disapproved of the Brown holding. Other former clerks of Justice Jackson dispute this characterization as unfair.

Landmark Decisions & Judicial Theories

Rehnquist was known for his "Pillars of Freedom," or attempts to return to a more conservative approach to federalism and states rights. He was a consistent conservative voice on the Supreme Court, next to Justices Thomas and Scalia during his term as Chief Justice. His "pillars" were:

  1. Weakening the commerce clause, which had been used as a "hook" for national legislation of all kinds, unrelated to commerce (U.S. v. Lopez). This had the effect of checking what had formerly been a fairly comprehensive governmental power over the states.
  2. Affirmative limits on the federal government's ability to regulate state affairs (National League of Cities). This interpretation of affirmative limits led to the defeat of elements of the Brady Bill.
  3. Judicial Restraint, as in, the idea that the Court should stay out of matters of political importance where the legislature has clearly spoken.
  4. Strict Construction, as in, a narrow reading of the Constitution, although not as strict as Antonin Scalia's new textualism approach.