Last February, when the other eight U.S. Supreme Court justices donned their black robes and sat in a dignified tableau at the President’s State of the Union address, William Hubbs Rehnquist was absent. He was attending what he judged to be a more important event—his night-school class in oil painting. The incident illustrates a fundamental trait of the man who in September became America’s 16th Chief Justice: In all matters, large and small, Rehnquist goes his own way.
At 62, he doesn’t bother to look like a chief justice: Stiff from a chronic back problem, he accentuates his ungainly appearance by occasionally wearing down-at-the-heel gray suede shoes, mismatched socks and brown sport coats with out-of-date narrow ties.
He doesn’t always act like a chief justice: During boring oral arguments, he has his clerks send him trivia questions on slips of paper, which he answers via Court messenger.
And, as was made abundantly clear during his bruising Senate confirmation battle last summer, a case can be made that Rehnquist doesn’t think like a chief justice. The first among equals, a chief justice can influence the Court primarily by forging a consensus, by striking compromises. Though highly intelligent and admired by his colleagues, Rehnquist has been so uncompromising in his conservatism that he has cast 48 dissents from otherwise unanimous Supreme Court opinions, more than any other justice in history.
His voting record leaves no doubt that Rehnquist will try to lead the Court to the right. He has voted against virtually every school desegregation order, against abortion, against banning supervised prayer from public schools.
“I felt that at the time I came on the Court, the boat was kind of heeling over in one direction,” Rehnquist has said. “I felt that my job was…to kind of lean the other way.” Now his days as a counterweight are over. Rehnquist, the chief, is at the helm.