Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist: prizing people, place, and history.

Author:Thompson, Barton H., Jr.
Position:Looking Backward, Looking Forward: The Legacy of Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice O'Connor - Testimonial

Which two Civil War battles were fought west of the Mississippi River? Chief Justice William Rehnquist knew the answer, as he knew a myriad of often obscure (but never unimportant) historical and geographical facts, salting many of them into his Supreme Court opinions and books and using others in informal wagers with friends, family, and law clerks. The answer, found in the Chief's opinion in Leo Sheep Co. v. United States, (1) is the Battle of Glorieta Pass (at a strategic location near Santa Fe, New Mexico, on March 26-28, 1862) and the subsequent Battle of Picacho Pass (fought on April 15, 1862, near Tucson, Arizona). Both battles, as the Chief emphasized, were more skirmishes than full-drawn engagements, but they helped illustrate the value to the United States of building a transcontinental railroad that could transport troops when needed to protect the western states and territories. The Confederate army hoped to create an outlet to the Pacific but was effectively stopped by the Union victory at the Battle of Glorieta Pass. (2) The Confederates, however, did not give up easily. When the Union forces at the Battle of Glorieta Pass asked the Confederates to surrender, one Southern commander responded memorably (and perhaps apocryphally), "We will fight first and surrender afterwards!" (3)

The Chief loved geographic and historical facts. Part of this love was his enjoyment of fact games (which in turn was part of the Chief's love of games in general). The Chief relished matching his own memory against the knowledge of family, friends, and clerks. Any attempt to describe the Chief without mentioning his enthusiasm for fact games would be like trying to describe Babe Ruth without mentioning his skill at hitting home runs. At the Chief's funeral, his younger daughter, Nancy Rehnquist Spears, recounted how, early one summer, the Chief bet her five dollars that she could not name the year when Queen Elizabeth I had died. Having just finished a biography of the "Virgin Queen," Nancy readily spouted off the answer of 1603. The Chief quietly cursed and spent the rest of the summer trying to win back the five dollars. Every year, the Rehnquist clerks would hold a reunion at which the current clerks had to present a skit, focused on the Chief and the Supreme Court Term, for the benefit of their predecessors. The game show "Jeopardy" provided a thematic structure for a number of these skits, with the Chief cast in the role of Art Fleming, trying to stump his fellow Justices or others with oblique questions about the Supreme Court, United States geography, and history.

The Chief's love of geographical and historical facts, however, also had more serious roots. Although the betting was fun, geography and history were critically important to the Chief because of the insight they provided him into people, social issues, and the law. The Chief left both the nation and those who were lucky enough to work for him with many valuable legacies. His Supreme Court opinions and his more than three decades of influence on Supreme Court jurisprudence are the most obvious. The Chief's understanding of the important influence of geography and history on people, events, and attitudes, however, has provided us with an equally valuable legacy.

When I first met the Chief in 1976 to interview for a clerkship in his chambers, the first thing that he wanted to know was where I was from. Where someone grew up provided the Chief with valuable working premises about who the person was--the person's general values, interests, and perspectives on life. He seemed somewhat troubled when I responded that I was from Los Angeles, perhaps because Los Angeles sometimes seems the antithesis of "place," a city that has lost its connection with geography (or perhaps tried to overcome its natural geography through imported water, artificial harbors, and leveled hills) and where history is often irrelevant. When I later was working on a certiorari petition involving a Phoenix socialite who had murdered her husband and jokingly asked the Chief whether lurid crimes were common in that city, he replied that Phoenix had been getting more and more like Los Angeles. In the Chief's view, place made an important imprint on people, and a person who did not have a sense of place was impoverished as a consequence.

The Chief himself was born in Shorewood, Wisconsin, of Swedish stock. (For ten points, where is Shorewood, Wisconsin? What was the city's original name? And identify at least ten famous American Swedes other than Chief Justice Rehnquist?) (4) Although Wisconsin was a progressive state, Shorewood was more conservative than most parts of Wisconsin, and the Chief's family was as conservative as any. Herbert Hoover, who graduated from Stanford as the Chief later would, was a political hero of the household. Place, time, and family forged the blend of social and economic conservatism that would characterize the Chief's later political and legal careers. After law school and a clerkship with Justice Jackson, the Chief chose to settle in Phoenix, Arizona. His years practicing law in the West shaped the Chief no less than his upbringing in Shorewood. The Chief became cognizant of the importance of water and other natural resources to the population and economy of the arid West, and he became even more appreciative of the role of state and local governments in determining the destiny of a region thousands of miles away from Washington, D.C., in...

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