“New York Times” Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse spoke Wednesday evening in Hoyt Auditorium on the “last days of the Rehnquist court,” an in-depth exploration of Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court William Rehnquist’s long and distinguished career.
Greenhouse, a Pulitzer Prize winner, highlighted significant cases in the judge’s long tenure now that rumors of his retirement are circulating, citing several decisions and controversies faced by the Supreme Court and how Rehnquist dealt with the various situations.
Her speech began with a recital of the opening lines of the Miranda warning, as an introduction to the prominent 2000 case of Dickerson vs. United States, upholding the use of the Miranda warnings by police officers.
Greenhouse described the reaction to the court ruling.
“It was a surprise when the chief justice announced the constitutional rule that could not be overturned by an act of Congress,” she said. “The Miranda had become part of national culture. Congress retains ultimate authority not required by the Constitution but cannot supercede the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution.”
Greenhouse explained there was much opposition to the decision, and many had expected a much different decision from the conservative Rehnquist, who ruled in the 7-2 majority and delivered the opinion to uphold the 34-year-old tradition of the Miranda rights given to suspected criminals upon arrest.
Conservatives such as Kenneth Starr felt the majority had “wussed out.” “Many felt overruling the Miranda rights would have been a better result,” Greenhouse said. “A court dominated by moderates was unwilling to change.”
Citing that it was not her role as a journalist to critique or “give out grades,” she nevertheless commented that Rehnquist is “one of the most significant Chief Justices of the Supreme Court’s history” and is responsible for the “accomplishment of defined objectives.”
Later on, in February 2001, at the bicentennial anniversary of John Marshall’s appointment as Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist began the court session by noting the anniversary and comparing Marshall in significance to the founding fathers and framers of the Constitution.
“Because of Marshall’s time in the Supreme Court, it occupies the co-equal position it does today,” Greenhouse said. “He gave claim to the unique ownership of the task of constitutional interpretation.”
She noted that Marshall is Chief Justice Rehnquist’s judicial hero, a man who instated the power of judicial review, influencing and changing the procedures and authority of the Supreme Court forever.
Greenhouse commented on Rehnquist’s admiration and Marshall’s influence that extends to the present, quoting Rehnquist saying, “The Supreme Court today is a lengthened shadow of Justice John Marshall.”
After serving as a law clerk to Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert Jackson in the early 1950s, Rehnquist spent the remainder of his early years in private law practice in Phoenix, Ariz. before coming to Washington. Within three years, he became an Assistant Attorney General to President Richard Nixon in 1969.
In 1972 he was sworn in as an associate justice and brought his more conservative viewpoint and influence to the Supreme Court. In the early 1980s, when the death penalty began to come into focus as a major point of discussion, and cases appeared in the Supreme Court, Rehnquist had opposing views, and dissented the court’s opinion. Many cases had been appealed to the Supreme Court and had been denied, but Rehnquist felt the court should have taken a case to prove a point and put an end to death penalty appeals.
“[Rehnquist] felt the court should have taken the case to show it was time to stop appeals,” Greenhouse said.
Rehnquist also did not waver in his opinion, retaining solidarity in backing his decisions “He had consistency in his views and success in translating those powers to popular opinion,” Greenhouse said.
He also expressed his approval of affirmative action rulings when race relations came to light in Supreme Court cases. “Rehnquist felt there is nothing more destructive than the quota. He felt a racial quota is a creator of castes,” Greenhouse said.
When asked about Rehnquist as a leader, Greenhouse commented on his stellar reputation among his colleagues. “He is immensely popular. He is regarded as fair in his work assignments. He does not play games and runs the court firmly and efficiently.”
Greenhouse was also asked about Rehnquist’s involvement in the 2000 presidential voting case and why the state did not retain autonomy in making the final decision. “You don’t look at it properly through the state’s lens,” she said. “You look at it through the judicial supremacy lens, the Supreme Court.”
Present affairs were brought up as well and her personal opinion was requested on the University of Michigan affirmative action case now being heard. “I think affirmative action by some measure is going to survive,” she said. “It may be more tailored, more subtle. But the court is not going to go the whole distance sought by the plaintiffs.”
Reaction to the speech as a whole was favorable.
“I thought it was very interesting,” sophomore Emily Hickey said. “I thought her assessment of the Michigan case was pretty correct in terms of what’s going to happen.”
“I think it was a really informative and enlightening lecture,” sophomore Tamia Pervez said. “I think she’s a great speaker who knows what she’s talking about. She definitely made difficult topics easy to understand.”
Greenhouse’s speech concluded the River Campus Libraries presentation of the Neilly Series lectures. Dean of the Libraries Ronald Dow was impressed. “I thought it was a great last talk for [the Neilly Series],” he said. “I felt she was intellectually stimulating.”
Greenhouse brought to light many of Rehnquist’s accomplishments and gave tribute to the Supreme Court justice.
“Rehnquist has enjoyed the gift of patience and of power,” she said. “He has had the gift of time – 31 years and as of this moment, still counting.”
Linden can be reached at email@example.com.