January 22, 2007

"Bill Rehnquist was concerned about efficiency. He didn't want to waste time. You could raise your hand, but it was not encouraged."

Here's a nice, big, juicy excerpt from Jan Crawford Greenburg's new book about the Supreme Court, "Supreme Conflict." Excerpting the excerpt:
The new chief justice was a master of the short statement at the Court, and he demanded brevity from fellow justices in their conferences. Rehnquist made it known that he expected less talk than his predecessor Burger had allowed. He found endless debate unproductive, and he believed the justices could best exchange legal reasoning and ideas in written memos and drafts. Whenever Rehnquist thought a justice went on too long in conference, he would simply cut him off. "It will come out in the writing," he'd say.

"Bill Rehnquist was concerned about efficiency. He didn't want to waste time. You could raise your hand, but it was not encouraged," O'Connor said of the conferences. "I thought Rehnquist's push for efficiency was a pretty good thing -- to get on with the task and get the work done."...

As chief justice, Rehnquist rarely pushed the independent O'Connor, even when she sided with liberals on social issues. Despite their long friendship -- and the number of times he needed a fifth vote -- it was a rare instance when Rehnquist picked up the phone to press his views....

It wasn't Rehnquist's style to lobby. Once, in Clarence Thomas's first year on the Court, the new justice was struggling with a case over the plight of thousands of Haitians who'd fled their war-torn country on boats for the United States. The George H.W. Bush administration ordered the coast guard to intercept them and return them directly to Haiti. Lawyers asked the justices to step in and stop the coast guard. Thomas was anguished. He sympathized with the Haitians. He called Rehnquist for advice, and the chief referred Thomas to a favorite poem by Arthur Hugh Clough. "Say not the struggle naught availeth," the poem begins, urging fortitude in the face of battle. It then ends on a hopeful note: "Westward look, the land is bright."

Thomas made a copy of the poem and slid it under the glass top of his desk, where he's kept it. He joined seven other justices and declined to intervene in the plight of the Haitian boat people. "I am deeply concerned about these allegations" of mistreatment in Haiti, Thomas wrote in a separate opinion explaining why the Court would not step in. "However, this matter must be addressed by the political branches, for our role is limited to questions of law."

Much more at the link. And in the book.


Simon said...

The more of a picture that emerges of Rehnquist, the more admirable and relatable a human being he seems. I've not always agreed with his jurisprudence, and he was always a conservative jurist before he was a formalist jurist (an approach I see as only marginally better than Brennan et al's), but he seems to have more than earned accolades as a great leader of the court, and a genuinely decent human being. This excerpt furthers that, and Greenburg paints a sympathetic and saddening picture of his failing health.

She's tackling conventional wisdom about Justice Thomas in today's WSJ, too (although I have to say that what she refers to as "the conventional wisdom about Justice Thomas" is of course only the conventional wisdom about Justice Thomas among his detractors.

in_the_middle said...

I think this contrasts with the mostly buried stories of his years of addiction to painkillers and his apparent state during session while high.

I believe the NYT published a piece on it (queue the "but they are biased!" screeches), as did Slate.

I think it's fascinating--and quite human. I would be careful about glossy puff pieces about Rehnquist.

Simon said...

in_the_middle said...
"I think this contrasts with the mostly buried stories of his years of addiction to painkillers and his apparent state during session while high."

I can't agree that it "contrasts." I might be willing to go along with that if Rehnquist had been addicted to heroin or some other recreational substance -- if he had been an alcoholic or a junkie -- but he was addicted to pain medication (not even an illegal substance, moreover - this isn't Angel Raich stuff) to alleviate chronic back pain. I think that's cause for sympathy, and if anything, makes Rehnquist seem all the more human and relatable. Everyone has their vices, and I guess Bill Rehnquist's was not being in constant pain. Go figure.

dearieme said...

"for our role is limited to questions of law": blow me, a judge who understands propriety, humility....

Simon said...

Here's the poem Rehnquist gave Thomas:

Say not the struggle naught availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke conceal'd,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
But westward, look, the land is bright!

Simon said...

I picked up the book this morning and have been sneaking some reading time during the morning - Greenburg earns her spurs less than forty pages in. Explaining what Ed Meese was looking for in a nominee (and found in Scalia), she says that "originalism [is] a way of interpreting the Constitution that limits a judge's focus to the document's exact words and the original understanding of its meaning." I wouldn't put it quite like that, but it is overjoying -- in an environment where originalism is constantly, pervasively, deliberately and duplicitously misrepresented as "the theory of original intent" -- to see a journalist hitting the nail squarely on the head in a book aimed at the mass market.