Thursday, September 08, 2005

Chief Justice William Rehnquist was a brilliant jurist, but he was also a Conservative ideologue!

I know I should be writing some eloquent eulogy to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, one of our longest serving Supreme Court justices, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. This is a man who embodied judicial activism for over 30 years. That is not a concept I have a great deal of trouble with in general, though I find it viciously hypocritical that conservatives would throw that terminology around to describe only judges who favor granting homosexuals civil rights and holding corporations accountable for the environmental footprint they leave on this country, and not the role of religion in our government and the rights of minority groups.

It has to be said, Chief Justice Rehnquist was a decent man. He was the first to come forward in the aftermath of the disgusting Terry Schiavo debacle and criticize neo-conservatives like Tom “the Hammer” Delay, when they railed against an out of control Judiciary that was taking the law into its own hands. He pointed out that this is in fact the job of the Judiciary, to interpret and clarify ambiguity that is inherent in all laws. In fact, the Judiciary has done a relative good job dealing with the political blather that is churned out by our rather sophomoric Congress. One can hardly blame the Judiciary for the atrocious laws that our elected officials churn out on a regular basis. It seems to me that 90% of the time the laws that the Legislative Branch passes are totally nonsensical so that it is near impossible to implement the laws, but the politicians can say that they took action and blame the people who implement the public policies.

In spite of his apparent reverence for the Judiciary, Chief Justice Rehnquist has taken some positions in cases that should be really troubling for a lot of people in this country. I guess the best approach is to start at the top and work our way down. William Rehnquist was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1972 by Tricky Dick Nixon. He was an extremely conservative appointment for the relatively moderate Nixon. Almost immediately he grabbed the mantel of conservative anchor on the Burger court. It is hardly surprising that he came so vehemently to the defense of the Judiciary and its very important role, since he was often regarded as an advocate of judicial supremacy. If you have any question about this, you need only look back to 2000 when he and his Supreme Court stepped in to decide the Presidential Election. He said that in times of uncertainty that a strong and truly supreme court should step in a take control. This is troubling to many, as they are lifetime appointments and accountable to no one once they are installed.

Rehnquist has voted against the expansion of school desegregation plans. He dissented in Roe v. Wade (1973). In his career Rehnquist has consistently voted in favor of school prayer and capital punishment. What endeared Rehnquist to the religious right was his leadership in establishing more governmental leniency towards state aid for religion (a clear and absolutely no-no to any Constitutional purist such as myself). This was evidenced in his writing for the majority in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, approving a school voucher program that aided parochial schools.

Then there are his positions on all things regarding the 14th Amendment. One of Rehnquist’s biggest legacies will be his push for State’s rights. He envisioned the 14th Amendment being interpreted as narrowly as possible, thus creating a system where deference was given to State’s (some might find it hypocritical that he then stepped in and overruled the Florida Supreme Court in the Bush v. Gore [2000] decision).

In the end, it may be his State’s rights push that will also hurt his legacy. Think about it, many of the problems that we face in our society are either the result of a lack of uniformity or because tasks are delegated to the States that really ought to be handled by the federal government. I can name a host of examples but I will give you just a few. Firstly, why do we delegate the control over core educational curriculum to ass-backward States like Kansas who then turn around and throw out all scientific methodology to turn science classes into faith based teaching opportunities? It seems to me that we should give a certain amount of discretion to local school districts, like deciding what should be on the lunch menu and designing school bus routes, but we need to a stand against dogmatic ignorance which exists in large pockets in this country.

The other great, and particularly timely, example is the handling of disaster relief. We need only look at the Gulf Coast of the United States in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to see the danger of ambiguity in the roles of federal and state officials. Clearly, the relief efforts of the disaster should have been the responsibility of the federal government. There is no way that the three poor states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama could have mustered the resources to take the decisive action that was urgently needed. But because so much discretion is now given to States, it was unclear for several days what role federal officials should play. This ambiguity did not exist in the 1960s when President Kennedy federalized the National Guard and sent them in to Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas to enforce desegregation efforts. Granted, the scope is different, but the unambiguous action taken by the federal government in the 60s, without regard for State’s rights interests clearly shows the influence the Rehnquist Court has had.

So we move on, Rehnquist is gone though his legacy will be felt for years to come. President Bush has moved to get John Roberts, a protégé of William Rehnquist’s, installed as the 19th Chief Justice of the United States of America. What will his legacy be? Only time will answer that question.

1 comment:

Eric the Papa said...

I generally agree with your characterization of Rehnquist. He was a decent man but very, very conservative...maybe even reactionary on issues like race relations. He was a typical "western conservative" like Goldwater...moderate on social issues (except abortion), but very conservative on economic issues. It's harder to explain his inconsistent "federalism" decisions. The 2000 Presidential election decision was outrageous...states should be held accountable to election laws, but they also should settle disputes internally.