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The Chief Remembered


The Honorable William H. Rehnquist (October 1, 1924 - September 3, 2005)

Throughout his career, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist remained a loyal supporter of the Law School, its students, and its graduates. In his keynote speech on the occasion of the Law School’s 175th Anniversary in 2002, the Chief noted that he had taken more clerks from Virginia than any other law school, saying “the University of Virginia Law School may pride itself on its national reputation among its competitors.… But I think there is something more to be said for the students who come out of the University of Virginia Law School; in my experience the best of them combine first-rate legal skills with a well-rounded outlook on life in a way which is second to none.”

Dean John C. Jeffries, Jr. ’73, who introduced the Chief at the Anniversary Conference, called him “a man of unfailing and punctilious courtesy, of imperturbable affability, a man who maintains warm personal relations across the political spectrum, a man who is and is perceived to be fair and decent to all. The Chief has the happy facility of taking his responsibilities, but not himself, with utmost seriousness—of bringing out, by his generosity and example, the best in those around him.… Chief, we can’t claim you as a Virginia graduate, but we like to think that you embody what a Virginia graduate should be. The combination of strong commitments, strongly defended, and deep and abiding civility to all around you, whether high or low, the combination of seriousness of purpose with generosity of spirit—this is the kind of balance between professional and human values that we hope our graduates attain.”

Throughout his 33-year career in the Supreme Court the Chief developed close friendships with many alumni with whom he worked. Three of his former clerks had the honor to serve as pallbearers at his funeral: Kerri Bartlett ’82, David Leitch ’85, and Ron Tenpas ’90. In the following interview with second-year John Kabealo, reprinted from the Virginia Law Weekly (September 16, Vol. 58, No. 3), Academic Associate Dean James E. Ryan ’92 pays tribute to Chief Justice Rehnquist, recounting his clerkship with him during the 1993–1994 term.

We could ARGUE AS MUCH AS WE WANTED and say whatever we wanted before the Court voted on a case. After the Court voted, we were to act like the Chief’s lawyer and to advocate his position.

Law Weekly: What was your first impression of the Chief when you met him?
JR: I first met him when I interviewed for a clerkship, and I was pretty nervous, so mostly I remember sweating a lot. But I do remember thinking that the Chief was not an especially sharp dresser, and that he had a rich and distinctive voice—which inspires imitation, as I learned later in talking with his clerks, all of whom imitated him. He also struck me as unusually normal for someone in his position.

Law Weekly: As an admitted liberal, did you ever feel any tension working under and writing the opinions of a man of a different political ideology? What was the Chief’s attitude towards hiring people of differing political ideologies?
JR: “Admitted liberal?” Sounds like “convicted sex offender.” I didn’t feel much tension working for the Chief, whose legal and political views differed from my own on a number of issues, but certainly not all. Part of the reason had to do with the cases heard and decided the year I clerked; there simply weren’t many blockbuster cases that provoked clear ideological divisions. To the contrary, it was a year filled with cases that didn’t have a strong ideological valence and others that split Justices who usually voted together. For example, toward the end of the Term, Justice Scalia read his dissent from the bench, which Justices only do when they strongly disagree with the majority opinion. The majority opinion, in that case, was written by the Chief. Another reason that I didn’t feel much tension working for the Chief was that he made the clerk’s role pretty clear: we could argue as much as we wanted and say whatever we wanted before the Court voted on a case. After the Court voted, we were to act like the Chief’s lawyer and to advocate his position.

As for the Chief, I don’t think he cared much about his clerks’ ideology. All three of his clerks the year I was there were Democrats, which surprised each of us. When I raised the issue of ideology in my interview with him, he told me that he mostly wanted to hire clerks with whom he and his permanent staff would get along for a year. I thought he was joking at first, but I later realized, as I got to know him, that he was dead serious. I think the Chief was confident enough in his own views that he didn’t feel the need to hire clerks who would always agree with him; he just didn’t want clerks who would pursue their own agenda and be lousy company for a year.

Law Weekly: What was day-to-day life as the Chief’s clerk like? How often did you meet with him?
JR: Day-to-day life was fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable. The work was great; my co-clerks and the Chief’s staff were terrific; and the clerks in the other Chambers were great as well. We met with the Chief each morning at 9:30 to talk about our work, how cases assigned to other Justices were coming along (“What do you suppose they’re doing?” he would often ask when an opinion assigned months earlier had yet to surface), the weather (in which the Chief took great interest; he served in a weather station in North Africa during World War II and meteorology remained a serious hobby from that point on), sports, geography, history trivia, current events, past cases, etc. My co-clerk was fearless about asking the Chief questions about a wide variety of topics, and the Chief seemed more than happy to answer them.

Law Weekly: What was the Chief like during oral arguments? Was there a difference between his public persona and how he acted in private?
JR: In public and private, the Chief prized efficiency. In public, this sometimes translated into a fairly gruff demeanor, especially when he was on the bench and felt like a lawyer was wasting the Court’s time, being evasive, or being disrespectful. He would come down pretty hard on lawyers when this happened, though the effect was as often humorous as not. I remember when a lawyer kept dodging a question from Justice O’Connor, saying three times in a row: “With all due respect, Justice O’Connor, the Court doesn’t have to answer that question.” The Chief finally interceded, telling the lawyer: “WE may not have to answer that question, but YOU do!” On another occasion, a lawyer couldn’t remember Justice Scalia’s name, and when responding to a question from Justice Stevens, said “that’s just like the question that guy asked,” pointing toward Justice Scalia. “His name is not THAT GUY,” the Chief responded, with a somewhat shocked look on his face. “His name is Justice Scalia.”

He was not gruff at all in private. Those who knew him personally, and this includes the other Justices, uniformly had great affection for him. He was unfailingly gracious, polite, and considerate to those he already knew or first met. Because he was so interested and knowledgeable about such a wide range of topics, and because he had a great sense of humor, he was also terrific company.

Law Weekly: Some say that the Chief threw a great Christmas party for the Court every year. Any insight on that?
JR: He loved that party and especially loved leading everyone there—clerks, other Justices, all of the Supreme Court staff—in song. The year I was there, a small, older man was banging out tunes on the piano, and I asked the Chief: “Where did you find that guy? He’s really good.” He told me: “The Third Circuit.” It was Judge Becker, who was in town and happy to play for the party.

Law Weekly: How did the Chief interact with the other Justices and the rest of the Court’s staff? What was the general demeanor of the Court under his stewardship?
JR: What the other Justices said about the Chief when he died captured it pretty well: he was an excellent administrator, both within the Supreme Court and over the judicial branch generally. He kept the work of the Court moving along, and was a fair and impartial administrator, within and outside of the Court. The Justices, though they disagreed sharply on a number of issues, got along personally quite well with one another, and I think the Chief set the tone in this regard. He never took things personally, and he never held a grudge when a colleague disagreed with him on a case. The Court itself, as a result, was a great place to work while he was Chief.

Law Weekly: The Chief was well known for having a great sense of humor. Do any particular events stand out that illustrate that?
JR: He did have a great sense of humor. People often point to practical jokes he played, including the time when he had a life-size picture of then Chief Justice Burger pasted onto a cardboard cut out, and placed on the Supreme Court steps. Burger was quite formal, and the Chief knew that Burger would be aghast at the sight of tourists taking their picture with a cardboard cutout, on the steps of the Supreme Court. He was right.

Practical jokes, though, aren’t what come to mind when I think of the Chief’s sense of humor. Instead, I recall his one-liners. He had a quick and dry sense of humor, and was able to toss out very good lines without much effort. To give just one example: Each week, my two co-clerks and I would play tennis with the Chief, and each week the teams and the results were always the same. The Chief would partner with Landis, who played high-level tennis in college, and they would beat Brian and me, neither of whom was very good. After one match, in which Brian and I did better than usual, Landis remarked that we had played really well that day. “Yeah,” said the Chief. “And you still lost.”

I expected to learn a lot about the law; I didn’t expect to LEARN SO MUCH ABOUT LIFE. But I did.

Law Weekly: How did you react when you heard the news of his death? How did the other clerks take it?
JR: I was quite surprised and quite sad, as were his other clerks.

Law Weekly: What was his funeral like? Did you feel that it did a good job of representing who he was?
R: The funeral emphasized his personal, rather than professional life. President Bush and Justice O’Connor each spoke, though only briefly, and Justice O’Connor spoke as much as a friend as a colleague, as the two of them were long-time friends. Longer, and quite poignant, eulogies were given by his son, one of his daughters, and one of his granddaughters. The resulting portrait was one that was familiar to and well-loved by those who knew him, including his clerks, and I think somewhat surprising to those who did not know him personally and had little idea of who he really was.

Law Weekly: What did you learn from him?
JR: A few years ago, the Chief’s clerks put together a scrap book and presented it to him at one of his annual clerk reunions. We were asked to write something about our time with him, and what I wrote had to do with what I learned from him. As I said then, I expected to learn a lot about the law; I didn’t expect to learn so much about life. But I did. What struck me most about working with the Chief was his sense of perspective and balance. Despite the nature and obvious importance of his job, he never lost sight of the fact that his job was just one part of his life. He loved his job, but he also loved his life outside of his job, including, most importantly, his family, to whom he was deeply devoted. He never let his work overwhelm him, nor did he become obsessed by it, either of which would have been completely understandable given his job. I’ve often thought of the Chief when trying to balance my own commitments to my job and to my family, and his example has helped remind me that, regardless of what you or others might think about the importance of your work, it is just one part of your life.

Law Weekly: Is there anything else you would want people to know about the Chief or your time with him?
JR: What I also learned is that it is too easy to demonize those with whom you disagree, especially those who are in positions of power. Spending time with the Chief made me—and anyone else who was fortunate to spend time with him—appreciate who he was as a person: incredibly smart and knowledgeable, funny, kind, devoted to his family, and gracious. He was, in short (and with no disrespect to my current, fabulous boss) the best boss I have ever had or expect to have.

Those who disagreed with the Chief’s legal views and did not know him occasionally described him, casually and with the benefit of ignorance, as essentially a bad person. I think the tendency to assume that those with whom you disagree are “bad” or somehow intellectually or emotionally deficient is rampant. My year with the Chief cured me of that tendency and helped me and my co-clerks understand that it is possible to have deep personal affection for someone with whom you disagree, and to genuinely admire that person.

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