Supreme Court Loses its Conservative Leader
This past weekend Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist died of thyroid cancer. Rehnquist was appointed by President Nixon in 1971 and was the longest standing member of the court. Although in recent years he was overshadowed by—the more staunchly conservative—justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice William Rehnquist spent over three decades on the Supreme Court as its leader of judicial conservatism. Now, this great bastion of conservative jurisprudence has disappeared and will most likely be replaced by John Roberts. Throughout his tenure as a justice on the Court Rehnquist ruled on landmark cases on a range of issues concerning capital punishment, abortion, and school prayer. The Court that Rehnquist leaves behind is one of the most conservative in the last fifty years and will only become more so with the appointment of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s replacement, whoever that may be.
Although Rehnquist was conservative, he was able to keep his judicial philosophy within the mainstream. Likewise, he hinted before his death that President Bush should appoint somebody in the mold of Justice O’Connor. Both a lack of experience as a jurist and an unwillingness to reveal his judicial philosophy make it difficult to know whether Roberts will be in the mainstream mold of Rehnquist or the radical mold of Scalia and Thomas. Since no one can tell what type of jurist Roberts will prove to be, Bush should honor Rehnquist’s legacy by appointing someone to fill Justice O’Connor’s seat, who is a conservative but undoubtedly moderate justice.
In facing many of the decisions that most divided the Court, Rehnquist was commonly credited as being the hidden-hand responsible for building consensuses. If Roberts is as talented a jurist, as those who support him claim he is, he should have no problem building similar consensuses among his fellow justices, including its soon-to-be newest member. While it remains possible that Rehnquist’s ability to build consensus will live on in John Roberts, it remains just as likely that Roberts will abuse his position as Chief Justice of a 6-3 conservative majority and further a radical, right-wing agenda.
Front Page (September 14, 2005)
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